By Carlos Carrillo
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican activists have begun gathering signatures for a referendum on charging former presidents with graft, heeding calls by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who on Tuesday said he would respect the outcome of a public vote on the issue.
While Lopez Obrador has said he does not favor bringing former presidents to trial, he has repeatedly called for the public to decide on the issue.
"I would vote to not put them on trial," he said in an annual state of the nation speech on Tuesday. "However, if a (public) consultation takes place, I will respect the popular decision."
Members of Lopez Obrador's MORENA party have been advising activists as they set up petition booths across Mexico in recent days. A website dedicated to the issue said 22,000 signatures had been gathered by Tuesday from the 1.8 million required.
"Anybody in any position should be judged just like any other person," said Berta Romero Cortez, a government worker who signed a petition in front of a poster of mugshot-style photos of former presidents.
The debate about bringing charges against leaders, including Lopez Obrador's predecessor Enrique Pena Nieto, intensified in August after testimony from a senior politician outlined high-level bribery and vote buying in Congress in the last administration.
Corruption by former administrations is key to Lopez Obrador's emerging campaign for mid-term elections in June 2021. He says a vote on the issue should coincide with the elections.
Critics say Lopez Obrador is using corruption in previous administrations to distract from his handling of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic.
Under Mexican law, activists have until Sept. 15 to collect the signatures, which will then be reviewed by electoral authorities before a decision is taken on the vote.
(Reporting by Carlos Carrillo; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Aurora Ellis)