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Decision Over Mayor Polarizes Mexico City

Congress Could Strip Populist of Immunity

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page A28

MEXICO CITY, April 6 -- Truck driver Jose Antonio Garcia is outraged that Congress is set to take an extraordinary vote Thursday that could knock Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the front-runner in next year's presidential race, out of that election and place him behind bars.

"It's not just at all! It's dirty politics," said Garcia, 52, as he ate breakfast underneath one of the thousands of banners hanging around this city in support of Lopez Obrador. But the taco stand owner serving him, Jose Roberto Soriano, said he was "in total agreement" with Congress as it moved against the populist mayor.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Mexico City mayor, faces a congressional vote that could prevent him from running for president in the 2006 elections. (Daniel Aguilar -- Reuters)

Congress is scheduled to vote on whether to strip Lopez Obrador of the immunity he enjoys as an elected official. If Congress does that, as expected, the attorney general has said he would ask a judge for an arrest warrant for Lopez Obrador for ignoring a court order to halt construction of an access road to a hospital.

That could eliminate Lopez Obrador from the presidential race because Mexican law states that anyone under indictment for a crime cannot run for office. Lopez Obrador has said he expects to go to jail because of the case, which he describes as a politically motivated farce. He has said he would run for office from behind bars.

As tensions rose in this capital ahead of a vote that increasingly is polarizing the city, the Mexican stock market fell 2.3 percent Tuesday, its biggest one-day loss this year. On Wednesday, it fell another 1.06 percent.

Many officials in Washington are concerned about the uncertainty and division the case is causing, with vast numbers of Mexicans being either fervently for or decidedly against the mayor. Lopez Obrador and his supporters are planning huge public protests beginning Thursday that could last for weeks and wreak havoc in the capital. In a country where economic crises often occur around presidential transitions, some are worried about keeping financial markets stable and retaining badly needed foreign investments.

Lopez Obrador, 51, from the Democratic Revolutionary Party, is the latest in a string of rising political stars in Latin America who disagree, to varying degrees, with the U.S. formula of democracy, open markets and free trade as a way to help the poor. Like leaders from Brazil to Venezuela, Mexico City's mayor is leaning heavily on government social programs as a way to lessen the gaps between the rich and poor.

Many of the city's poor support the mayor and his cry, "For the good of all, the poor come first." Garcia, the truck driver, described the mayor as a leader "who works for the people." He said his elderly parents each receive a monthly stipend from the city under a popular program that Lopez Obrador started. The mayor's high-profile public works projects, most notably the construction of a second tier on a clogged highway that rings Mexico City, have improved daily life, Garcia said.

But Lopez Obrador's detractors say they worry about where he is getting the money to hand out to the elderly and single mothers, to build roads, plant flowers and refurbish parks. They complain that he is plunging the city into debt as he tries to buy his way to the presidency. They say he is fiscally irresponsible, and would steer the country in an uncertain direction that could erase many economic gains of the last decade.

The attorney general's case centers on an incident in which a judge ordered a city crew to stop building the hospital access road after a land dispute arose, but the construction continued. The federal prosecutor's office says it will prove the mayor was involved in that decision.

Jorge Castañeda, the former foreign minister under President Vicente Fox who also has presidential ambitions, said the road construction case against Lopez Obrador might not be that significant. But, he said, it illustrated a pattern that Lopez Obrador had shown throughout his career -- a selective respect for the rule of law.

"He systematically considers that if laws are unjust, they don't have to be obeyed, and he's the one who determines which ones are unjust," Castañeda said.

Still, Castañeda said he "would prefer for him to be on the ballot" even "if I find it hard to accept that just because he's a candidate, and a leading candidate, that he's above the law."

Alvaro Arceo, a lawyer and legal adviser to Lopez Obrador, said he was "99 percent sure" Congress would vote against the mayor because rival political parties, which control the legislative body, have already made a political pact to run him out of the presidential race.

"This is a blow to democracy," Arceo said. "This is a return to authoritarianism that we thought we had left behind."

Legal and political analysts here said that while a congressional vote against the mayor would severely hurt his future prospects, it would not automatically disqualify him from the July 2006 race. Several scenarios remain possible, they said, including one in which the mayor's case is resolved in his favor by the courts in time for him to declare his candidacy.

Arceo said the mayor's two main rival parties, Fox's National Action Party and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, are afraid of Lopez Obrador "because he differs from them on various points," including his concern about the excessive concentration of wealth. "Right now the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer," Arceo said.

Researchers Bart Beeson and Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company