MEXICO CITY — A line of armored vehicles awaits outside Mexico's Congress building. Most are brand-new and have never seen action. But many Mexicans wonder whether their menacing presence is a harbinger of this divided country's future.
Federal authorities deployed the tanks to prevent supporters of leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from shutting down Mexico's legislature in a bid to pressure the Federal Electoral Tribunal to order a full recount of all 41 million votes in the disputed July 2 presidential election.
On Monday, the first and only street battle of Mexico's election controversy erupted outside Congress when federal police arrived to disperse supporters of Lopez Obrador. A handful of lawmakers were bruised in the melee.
"What happened at the legislative palace may be a rehearsal for what we can expect after the tribunal renders its final decision," said Leo Zuckermann, a political analyst here. "Lopez Obrador knows he won't win before the tribunal.... What he is trying to accomplish now is to start a social movement."
The tribunal's seven judges began meeting privately Thursday to debate the results of a partial recount of 4 million votes. They have until early September to declare a winner, but a decision is expected sooner.
Conservative candidate Felipe Calderon led Lopez Obrador in the initial count by 244,000 votes. According to news reports and figures provided by the two campaigns, the partial recount will narrow Calderon's lead -- but only by 7,000 to 13,000 votes.
Legal experts say the tribunal probably will not order a full recount, although the judges could still annul the election and order a new vote for next year.
Some members of Lopez Obrador's leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, have said they will launch a sustained nationwide program of civil disobedience if the tribunal declares Calderon the winner.
Gerardo Fernandez Norona, a Lopez Obrador aide, said Wednesday that the candidate's supporters would take a position of "rebellion in the face of authority" and might encourage Mexicans to stop paying taxes. However, Ferandez Norona is known as a loose cannon, and some dismissed his statements as mere bluster.
As the election saga reaches its endgame, there are also indications that some PRD members would balk at taking the radical actions that others in their party favor.
"Violence and riots in the streets are a less probable outcome than many people in Mexico think," said Pamela Starr of Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm. "But I wouldn't discount it either. With the current high levels of tension on the streets, it's easy for things to spin out of control."
Lopez Obrador's supporters have shut down Paseo de la Reforma, the city's central axis, since July 30. Mexico City's notorious traffic has significantly worsened, turning even simple commutes into gridlock nightmares.
Many residents say the capital is being held hostage by Lopez Obrador and his supporters. Even longtime backers of the leftist candidate have said the decision to blockade the capital's streets has been a grave political mistake.
"The blockade ... is an act of profound callousness that hurts a cause that belongs to many people," Carlos Monsivais and three other prominent leftist writers said in an open letter to Lopez Obrador. "Why pressure the powerful with actions that first and foremost hurt the popular classes?"
The street barricades are seen as a political disaster for Alejandro Encinas, the outgoing mayor of Mexico City and a close Lopez Obrador ally.
Encinas' approval rating has plunged since the protest movement began.
The mayor controls Mexico City's police force -- and the officers, rather than reopening the streets, appear to be acting as the protesters' security guards.
Lopez Obrador said Aug. 13 that the street barricades would stay in place during President Vicente Fox's State of the Union speech Sept. 1 and during Mexico's Independence Day celebrations next month.
When Calderon and Fox said preventing the Independence Day celebrations from going forward would be an assault on Mexican patriotism, Encinas responded that the barricades might be temporarily lifted to allow the traditional military parade. But the next day, Fernandez Norona said the blockades would not be lifted.
Fox has suggested he won't take any action against the protesters until the tribunal confirms the winner of the election.
Addressing a group of supporters Thursday, Lopez Obrador said Fox might use the military to clear the streets by force. The candidate said his backers would resist any effort to provoke a confrontation with the military.
"Do they think they're going to put a puppet president on the throne with the support of the army?" Lopez Obrador asked his supporters. "They're wrong. We are not going to give them any excuse to use force. We won't give them the pleasure of using their tanks."