• Voting begins at a polling station in the Plaza Grande. The referendum will determine the future of the new Mexico City airport. Photo: Sipse

A massive, US$13 billion airport in Mexico City, the nation’s largest public infrastructure work in a century, could be halted depending on a public referendum that begins today.

If it’s allowed to finish, the new airport will replace the Benito Juárez International Airport, the busiest airport in Latin America, transporting 41.7 million passengers in 2016.

Ballott locations in Yucatán. Click for larger view.

The vote is an early test for President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office Dec. 1.

He organized the nationwide referendum, which continues through Sunday and isn’t legally binding. But AMLO, as he is known, has pledged to honor the result when he becomes president.

The promise echoes his years as mayor of Mexico City, from 2000 to 2005, when he often took to the streets to consult ordinary citizens. It’s also parallel with his commitment to pare back the excesses and luxuries of Mexico’s political class.

The airport project is viewed by many as a boondoggle for an out-of-touch elite. Two-thirds of Mexican citizens have never been on an airplane.

Polls suggest the general public does, however, support the project. If the referendum bears this out, López Obrador can support the project without being politically tainted by the project’s costs and complications.

The referendum is being overseen by a non-governmental organization rather than the federal election commission. Ballots will be set up in just 500 of the country’s 2,448 municipalities, and fewer than 2 percent of citizens will likely cast ballots, according to Axios. Members of AMLO’s Morena party will be tasked with monitoring voting sites.

“The bottom line: In calling this unprecedented referendum, AMLO hopes to bolster his populist credentials,” writes Gabe Lipton of GZERO Media. “The results, and how the president-elect responds if voters opt to keep the project, will say a lot about Mexico’s political future and whether its next president is more pragmatist or revolutionary.”

The airport’s cancellation would come at a high cost. The project is already 32 percent completed, according to the last estimate by Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration in September, and much of the money for its completion has been raised.

If required to prepay the current debt related to the project, the government would have to pay US$10.48 billion, or 0.88 percent of gross domestic product, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria wrote in a note Monday.

Sources: Axios, Bloomberg

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