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Thousands rally for Lopez Obrador

The defeated candidate for president still alleges fraud, a year later. In Mexico City, he warns the victor, Calderon, against tax hikes.

July 02, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — A year after losing Mexico's presidential election, leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador proved he can still draw a crowd, filling the capital's central square Sunday with tens of thousands of supporters eager for his message of relief and justice for the country's poor.

"The people of Mexico have a heart that is collectivist, free and progressive," Lopez Obrador, 53, said to cheering supporters who waited hours for his 1 p.m. arrival at the city's sprawling Zocalo.

"A year after the election fraud we can say with pride that the right and their allies were mistaken," he added.

"We are still here and will continue, convinced more than ever of the need for an alternative path."

But the turnout was smaller and the enthusiasm more restrained than in the weeks after the July 2, 2006, election, when the crowd spilled from the central plaza into nearby streets.

The charismatic former mayor of Mexico City lost the election to conservative Felipe Calderon by less than half a percentage point, a margin that he and supporters allege was the result of electoral fraud by a coalition of conservative ideologues and big businesses.

Outraged Lopez Obrador supporters camped on the city's main boulevard for weeks last summer. Their demand for a full recount of ballots was refused by electoral judges, who declared Calderon the winner. Calderon took office Dec. 1. As many as a third of Mexicans still believe the election was stolen, according to recent polls.

"What can I tell you? It was a fraud," said Candelaria Chavez Mendez, 65, while waiting for Lopez Obrador to take the stage in front of the National Palace. "They declared the wrong man the winner."

But a national poll last week showed that if a presidential election were held now, Calderon would trounce Lopez Obrador, 44% to 18%.

Analysts are divided over the lingering importance of Lopez Obrador as a national political leader. Some say he blew his formidable lead in the months before the election and concocted the electoral fraud charges as a flimsy cover.

After his defeat, Lopez Obrador compounded matters by launching a quixotic "alternative government," forgoing a chance to negotiate a legislative agenda with Calderon's administration. Instead, some say, he turned to political theater, declaring himself Mexico's "legitimate president" in a ceremony that drew ridicule.

But Lopez Obrador's no-compromise attitude on behalf of the poor is a large part of his appeal, according to more sympathetic analysts.

It's no secret he was hated by big business and former President Vicente Fox. Rich donors gave generously to defeat him. Wealthy families warned they'd leave Mexico if Lopez Obrador won.

Fox tried to have Lopez Obrador knocked out of the presidential election, alleging misconduct while Lopez Obrador was still mayor. The federal charge was dropped after legal scrutiny and mass protests, and the political war became a personal one.

Many Mexicans believe that only tough guys can take on the rich. And the last year has cemented Lopez Obrador's image as a fighter, with his allegations of electoral fraud now ingrained in Mexican folklore.

"There will be no negotiations with the right," Lopez Obrador said Sunday. "Am I clear?"

But whether he can hold his Democratic Revolution Party, known as the PRD, to this strict declaration is not so clear.

Some party members don't believe the PRD can grow by trying to kill off Calderon proposals though 2012, when his term ends.

One test of Lopez Obrador's influence will be seen in the progress of the president's proposed tax reform. Calderon wants to close loopholes for business and create a 19% minimum income tax rate to shift the government's dependence on dwindling oil revenue.

But Lopez Obrador said Sunday that the proposal wouldn't get any support from the PRD unless it includes cuts in government spending. Taking a line from U.S. Republicans, Lopez Obrador said tax hikes translate into fewer jobs.

"We don't want the government rich and the people poor," he said.

Even with a new wife and baby boy, Lopez Obrador maintains a schedule carried over from his campaign: Meeting with officials and conducting party business in Mexico City from Monday through Wednesday, then traveling to cities and towns Thursday through Sunday, to support local PRD candidates and make speeches on behalf of his alternative government movement.

His image still sells. On Sunday, people hawked Lopez Obrador ballpoint pens, pennants, hats, bandannas, T-shirts, key rings, bottle openers, lapel pins, even clocks with Lopez Obrador wearing the presidential sash.

Copies of his newly published book, "The Mafia Stole the Presidency from Us," were sold from stands and by itinerant vendors.

Being one of the country's most revered leftists, however, does not protect Lopez Obrador from the country's ubiquitous black market. A speaker at the podium warned supporters to buy copies of his book from authorized stands for 100 pesos (about $9), rather than the 10-peso version being sold elsewhere.

sam.enriquez@latimes.com

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

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