MEXICO CITY, April 1 -- A congressional panel recommended Friday that Mexico City's mayor face criminal charges for allegedly disobeying a court order, a decision that could keep him out of next year's presidential election.
By a 3-to-1 vote, the committee ruled that the 500-member House should decide whether to strip Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the immunity from criminal prosecution he enjoys as an elected official.
The case involves a disputed land expropriation for construction of an access road to a hospital.
At stake is the political future of a man who has built a large following, mostly because of heavy spending on social programs and construction projects.
Although he has not formally declared his candidacy, Lopez Obrador has consistently led all public opinion polls as a potential presidential candidate in 2006.
Shortly before the announcement, hundreds of demonstrators loyal to the mayor and his Democratic Revolutionary Party filled the narrow streets of the capital city's center and dozens more gathered outside the lower House of Congress.
When heavily armed security guards barred them from entering the chamber, legislative staffers from Lopez Obrador's party took matters into their own hands.
Chants of "No to the Impeachment" echoed through the chamber.
"It's a blow to the republic, a blow to democracy, an attack on liberty," said Congressman Manuel Camacho, anticipating a decision that wasn't expected to come for several hours.