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Lopez Obrador Shows Strength on 2 Fronts

Mexico's presidential runner-up proves he commands authority within the legislature as well as on the streets to push for change.

September 03, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — By delivering a symbolic but stinging blow to the government of President Vicente Fox, losing presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador clinched the first round in his fight for a nonviolent revolution to transform Mexico.

The leftist leader harnessed the full support of his party's congressional delegation to block Fox from delivering his nationally televised State of the Nation speech Friday, humiliating the president and raising fears over his apparent inability to exercise authority against a growing opposition.

"The question becomes, is Mexico on the brink of political crisis? And you could say after Friday that it's entered that realm," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There doesn't seem to be a willingness to negotiate or compromise.... It's like two trains on a head-on collision course."

Authorities deployed thousands of federal police at the Congress building Friday, anticipating a rush by Lopez Obrador supporters who want a recount of the July 2 election, apparently won by conservative Felipe Calderon by less than 1 percentage point.

But Lopez Obrador called off his army of street demonstrators in the late afternoon. Instead, invited lawmakers of his Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, rose from their seats that evening and took over the hall at a prearranged signal, presumably at the behest of Lopez Obrador.

The seizure of the congressional dais in the moments before Fox's speech revealed the twin strategies of Lopez Obrador to use street demonstrations and Mexico's legislature to hammer away at Fox, Calderon and their National Action Party, or PAN, analysts said.

Looking beyond the disputed election, Lopez Obrador is expected to use both means to try to steer Mexico back to a more protected economy, countering what he sees as unfair global competition that keeps half the country in poverty.

"If he were just a street guy, that'd be one thing," said Daniel Lund, a Mexico City-based political analyst and pollster. "But he's one of the best political operatives in the country. His goal for the PRD is to deepen their roots and build electorally."

In the last 10 years, first as party president and later as Mexico City mayor, Lopez Obrador helped his party win local, state and federal offices. Last month, the PRD elected its first governor of Chiapas state, defeating a rival who had the backing of a last-minute coalition of PAN and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which held the presidency for seven decades until Fox's victory in 2000.

Many had predicted fractures within the PRD this summer after Lopez Obrador directed weeks of street blockades and protest camps in the center of the capital that, though largely peaceful, snarled traffic, drove away business and alienated residents.

But even though his often strident speeches have scared away many former supporters, Lopez Obrador showed he maintained a firm grasp on his party, now the second-largest bloc in Mexico's newly elected Congress.

"Being able to stand up united and prevent the president from delivering his speech shows the strength of the movement," Peschard-Sverdrup said.

Lopez Obrador, 52, built his support from the mayor's office and the car caravans that crisscrossed the country in nearly 10 months of presidential campaigning.

The charismatic and fiery speaker filled plazas with the many poor who have fallen further behind under Mexico's decade-old move toward a free-market system.

"He believes in revolutionary nationalism: big government, social programs, protectionism and being self-sufficient in oil and natural gas," said George Grayson, a political science professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and author of a recent Lopez Obrador biography.

Lopez Obrador lost by 240,000 votes out of 41 million cast in an election he said was stolen on behalf of Calderon by Fox and his allies. His legal challenges have been rebuffed by Mexico's electoral tribunal, which is expected to name Calderon president by its constitutional deadline Wednesday. Fox's term ends Dec. 1.

Lopez Obrador's postelection campaign seeks to discredit the federal government and any Mexican politician or institution that fails to support his claim to the presidency. He's called for a national convention Sept. 16, Mexico's Independence Day, to discuss creating a parallel government.

"Granted, he exposed Mexico's Achilles' heel -- that the have-nots haven't benefited to the extent that others have. But I just don't know whether it justifies unraveling Mexico's political system as a result," Peschard-Sverdrup said.

Meanwhile, Lopez Obrador's demonstrations have remained largely unchallenged, protected by the PRD's control over Mexico City, where the protests are centered.

With public opinion divided over the election results, mounting anger at demonstrators and a fear of violent clashes, Fox faces tremendous pressure to reach some accord with Lopez Obrador, an unlikely prospect at the moment, or deal more forcefully with protesters.

"The Fox administration has shown political restraint, but public opinion may force him to finally act," Peschard-Sverdrup said. "Not to mention that he could more easily take the political hit than an incoming Felipe Calderon."

Lopez Obrador retains a popular advantage among the working class here, seen as someone able to outsmart Fox, the police and the government.

Mexican political analyst Leo Zuckerman said, "The real winner was Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who continues to look like a great political leader versus a president who, although still popular, has a fading image."

sam.enriquez@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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