MEXICO CITY — Turnout was light, but voters in a nonbinding referendum gave an overwhelming "no" to President Felipe Calderon's proposal to give private firms a bigger role in Mexico's government-controlled petroleum industry.
More than 80% of those who cast ballots Sunday in Mexico City opposed the plan, according to the official tally of the federal district released Monday. The results were even more lopsided outside the capital, where nine of Mexico's 31 states also participated. With about two-thirds of the ballots counted, more than 90% of those voters gave the president's proposal a thumbs down.
Slightly more than 1.5 million people cast ballots Sunday. Organizers had been hoping for a turnout twice that size in the greater Mexico City area alone.
Orchestrated by the opposition Democratic Revolution Party, the so-called Citizen Consultation was the first of three public referendums to be held throughout Mexico over the next month to gauge public opinion on pending energy reforms.
The results have no official bearing on legislation being hashed out in Congress. But the left-leaning PRD is gambling that strong public opposition will force lawmakers to back off proposals to open portions of the state petroleum monopoly to private or foreign firms.
Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a PRD member and potential presidential candidate in 2012, praised the event as a way for ordinary Mexicans to be heard on a matter vital to the nation's future.
"The will of the people that was expressed freely is clearly opposed" to the president's legislation, Ebrard said.
Critics lambasted the event as a politically motivated stunt to embarrass Calderon in the middle of heated negotiations. Members of the president's National Action Party had charged that one of the two questions on the ballot was worded to elicit a "no" response, making the results a foregone conclusion.
The head of Pemex, the state-owned oil company, dismissed the significance of Sunday's results.
"The turnout was limited . . . the conclusions were expected," said Director-General Jesus Reyes Heroles.
Mexico is the world's sixth-largest petroleum producer, and the industry is the nation's largest taxpayer. But output and proven reserves are sliding badly after years of government neglect. Pemex lacks the expertise and capital to tap Mexico's deep-water crude deposits. Mexican law prohibits foreign and private firms from investing in the energy sector.
Calderon in April sent legislation to Congress that would loosen some restrictions on Pemex, enabling it to team up with foreign oil companies to extract the nation's undersea oil. His plan also calls for more private investment in areas such as refining and storage.
Opponents say Calderon's real objective is to privatize Pemex, a charge the president denies.