MEXICO CITY — A band rocked on a distant stage, children played catch and the aroma of beans rose from simmering pots as men and women gathered around a loudspeaker to hear their leader's evening broadcast.
"More people are coming, from all over the country," said Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the presidential runner-up whose supporters have pitched camp on the capital's main boulevard to back his demand for a recount.
"There is a powerful word," the former Mexico City mayor said this week in a live broadcast from a stage in the city's central square. "And that word is solidarity."
Lopez Obrador is forging a community on the asphalt lanes of Paseo de la Reforma. His followers have created a tent city under tarps and bright banners covered with his name and slogans, where food and entertainment are free and the rhetoric is repeated by heart. Even the children chant "Vote by vote," the recount mantra, as they sit at tables drawing their leader's image in finger paint.
Lopez Obrador's post-election campaign seeks to cast so much doubt on Mexico's July 2 presidential election that, regardless of the final outcome, faithful supporters always will regard him as the rightful winner whose victory was stolen.
Even without proof, and so far there is none, that idea could power an opposition movement in the months ahead if he's declared the loser by the Federal Electoral Tribunal, analysts say.
The tribunal, whose decisions are final under Mexican law, is expected to announce a preliminary ruling today on Lopez Obrador's appeal for a recount. The seven-judge panel has until Sept. 6 to declare a victor.
Critics say Lopez Obrador's movement comes at the cost of credibility to institutions vital to Mexico's progress toward democracy. And Felipe Calderon, who by official count won the election, may have to govern a divided country.
Lopez Obrador has persuaded thousands of people now making their home on the Reforma and in the central square, called the Zocalo, that the government and Mexico's independent elections commission cannot be trusted.
At stake, they say, is the future of the country. Lopez Obrador's campaign promised more jobs and money to the poor.
"We are all brothers," said Alejandro Rodriguez, a volunteer watchman for what is being called the Fiesta of Democracy. "We're supporting democracy and the vote."
He and other protesters say the election was stolen by government and big business. He adds that President Vicente Fox, who broke 71 years of single-party rule when he was elected six years ago, is a traitor to Mexico for helping install Calderon, a fellow member of the National Action Party and a free-market conservative.
Calderon won the election by less than a percentage point, about 244,000 votes, and Lopez Obrador has petitioned the tribunal to order a full recount. He alleges there were instances of fraud, human error and conspiracy.
Political pressure on the tribunal has grown this week as traffic in the capital slowed to a standstill and businesses lost millions of dollars. Lawyers say the tribunal could certify the election, order a nationwide recount, a partial recount, or throw out the entire election.
Lopez Obrador supporters set up camp outside the tribunal's offices in the southern part of the capital. They've strung up sheets painted with "We're not going to take it," and, with a picture of Calderon, "This imbecile is laughing at Mexico."
"The whole election was filled with tiny irregularities that when added up make a huge fraud," said Fernando Quiroz Nacar, 46, a teacher on summer vacation. "If people don't protest, they won't get heard and if they're not heard then it's all over."
Lopez Obrador has apologized for creating a traffic nightmare for Mexico City. But he and his supporters say this battle is more important.
Pollsters say a backlash against him among left-leaning intellectuals and former supporters is growing in the capital, where many residents are growing weary. A giant sign hanging from pedestrian overpasses, on display for bumper-to-bumper traffic, declared: "Today they seized Reforma. Tomorrow the country."
Fox, who by law cannot run for reelection when his term ends Dec. 1, criticized the seizure of the Zocalo and Paseo de la Reforma. "The law shouldn't be subject to the convenience or gratification of individuals or particular groups," he said. "Let's not be playing with fire. There's no need to risk it."
But Fox can't intervene in Mexico City without a request from Mayor Alejandro Encinas, a Lopez Obrador ally. The Democratic Revolution Party, which Lopez Obrador leads, controls City Hall and has lent workers, money and materials for the encampments. Volunteers brought the rest.