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article imageMexico votes in referendum on controversial new airport

By Sofia MISELEM (AFP)     Oct 25, 2018 in Travel

Mexico's incoming leftist government of President-Elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Thursday opened polls for a referendum on whether or not to keep building a controversial new airport for the capital area.

The consultation is to last four days, with results expected on Sunday.

The 64-year-old Lopez Obrador, who succeeds Enrique Pena Nieto on December 1, had threatened to cancel the multi-billion-dollar project, charging it was a waste of taxpayer money.

The soon-to-be president, a former Mexico City mayor, has also criticized the environmental impact of the project -- whose estimated cost is more than $13 billion -- and said it is marred by corruption.

"We're talking about millions of pesos, we're talking about corruption that could be avoided," Lopez Obrador said Thursday before casting his own ballot in the capital.

But the vote has put him on a collision course with the business world, which says the new terminal is needed to ease woes at the aging current airport, which handled nearly 45 million passengers last year.

Lopez Obrador says instead of building a new terminal northeast of the capital, a military airbase south of the mega-city could be repurposed.

Mexican businessman Carlos Slim -- who was number seven on Thursday in Forbes magazine's real-time rankings of the world's richest people, with a net worth of $67.1 billion -- is the main investor in the airport.

He has led the business community's criticism of Lopez Obrador, who won the presidency in a resounding victory in July.

"Canceling the project would amount to canceling the economic growth of the country," Slim said in April.

Mexicans line up to vote in a referendum on the construction of a new airport for Mexico City -- the...
Mexicans line up to vote in a referendum on the construction of a new airport for Mexico City -- the vote is expected to last four days

Slim's construction company CICSA was awarded the $4.7 billion contract to build the airport's terminal in consortium with six other companies.

The new airport will create up to 450,000 jobs and have the capacity to handle 125 million passengers a year when fully operational, according to Pena Nieto's government.

Lopez Obrador's decision to submit the airport project -- a technical one that has implications for air safety -- to a public vote has been widely questioned.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized UN agency, supports the building of the new airport.

- Voting irregularities? -

Mexican voters have been asked to answer the following question: "Given the saturation of Mexico City International Airport, which option do you consider to be the best for the country?"

Two choices are given: repurposing the Santa Lucia military base, a plan that would also mean renovating the current airport and one in neighboring Toluca; or keep building the new one and abandon the old one.

"Whatever the people decide will be supported by the government," Lopez Obrador said, insisting that should the project be cancelled, the contracts would be protected -- meaning a slew of potential lawsuits on the horizon.

Analysts are concerned that the vote organized in 1 073 polling stations across Mexico is sub-standa...
Analysts are concerned that the vote organized in 1,073 polling stations across Mexico is sub-standard, and could be marred by irregularities
Julio Cesar AGUILAR, AFP

Polling institutes say about 55 percent of respondents want the new airport to be built.

Analysts are concerned that the vote organized by Lopez Obrador in 1,073 polling stations is sub-standard.

An AFP journalist said it was possible to cast a ballot in more than one place on Thursday, after the failure of a computer system that was meant to centralize the voter rolls.

Jesus Ramirez, a spokesperson for Lopez Obrador's team, acknowledged some difficulties but said they "did not invalidate the poll."

There are no voting regulators taking part in the process. The Arthur Rosenblueth Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of technology, will count the votes.

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