MEXICO CITY, April 7 -- Congress voted Thursday to strip Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of his immunity from prosecution, an extraordinary move that could lead to his arrest for disobeying a court order and prevent him from running in next year's presidential election.
The action against Lopez Obrador has created worries here and abroad about the progress of Mexico's transition toward democracy after more than seven decades of authoritarian rule, which ended in 2000. It has also raised questions about whether millions of Mexicans would accept the validity of the 2006 presidential election without the popular front-runner on the ballot.
Supporters of Lopez Obrador flood the city's main square. Local officials said as many as 300,000 people came to the square over the course of the day.
The federal attorney general's office said the mayor "abused his authority" by failing to comply with a judge's order to halt construction of an access road to a hospital. With his immunity now lifted, the attorney general's office has said that Lopez Obrador would be charged in the coming days with violating a 2001 court order in the land dispute and that it would seek his arrest. Mexican law states that anyone facing formal criminal charges is prohibited from running for elective office.
Jaime Cardenas, a legal scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the law was an "aberration" because it "violates the presumption of innocence" by punishing someone simply for being charged with a crime. Alvaro Arceo, a lawyer and adviser to the mayor, said in an interview that Lopez Obrador planned to file a court challenge to retain his right to run for office.
Lopez Obrador said Thursday that he broke no law and that he was being railroaded by political enemies trying to keep him out of the presidential race.
"If they throw him out on something like this, it definitely affects the legitimacy of the race," said Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a political analyst. "It would be one thing if this were about a major corruption issue, but this is ridiculous. The implications of this legal action are totally disproportionate to the crime. It's really quite absurd."
President Vicente Fox has said the case shows that the rule of law is working in Mexico and that anyone who breaks the law, no matter how popular or powerful, will be prosecuted. Fox, who was traveling Thursday to Rome to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II, had no immediate comment about the vote in Congress.
Interior Minister Santiago Creel, the leading presidential candidate from Fox's National Action Party, acknowledged Thursday night that there had been many critics of the process but said it was worth the effort. "Mexico is at peace," he said. "It is a country of institutions and laws."
Hours before the vote, Lopez Obrador addressed a huge throng of supporters in the Zocalo, the main square in Mexico City, telling them that the action against him "returns us to the authoritarian era" when political leaders, not the people, "decided who could or could not be the president of Mexico."
Lopez Obrador told the crowd that he would seek the presidency despite the legal challenges against him. Polls consistently show him as the clear favorite in next year's race. Although defiant and angry at what he called "an attack against democratic advances," he urged the crowd to remain calm and "not fall into the trap" that his opponents have laid in hopes that they can disrupt the city and alienate moderate voters.
Lopez Obrador is a populist leader who has built a strong base among the city's poor, largely through social services and public works spending. His critics, especially business leaders, argue that his lavish spending has won him votes at the expense of the long-term economic health of North America's largest city. He has also caused concern by saying that the economic model Mexico has been following is not working and that an "alternative" is needed to bridge the gap between rich and poor.
"I am not being judged for breaking the law; I am being judged for my way of thinking and acting," he said, speaking Thursday before Congress. He accused Fox of having an "obsession" with him and "degrading the institutions of the republic" to "campaign against me." He also accused Supreme Court Chief Justice Mariano Azuela of "subordinating the high principles of justice" to "political orders."
After a nine-hour session, the lower house of Congress voted 360 to 127 to strip the mayor of the immunity from prosecution afforded to Mexican elected officials. The votes against him came largely from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, the two largest blocs in the 500-member chamber.
"There is an agreement between two parties to eliminate him, and it's disgusting," said Francisco Castillo Najera, 61, a Lopez Obrador supporter. "After what everyone thought would be a change for democracy . . . it's all falling apart."
Lopez Obrador has accused Fox of hypocrisy, saying he came into office in 2000 promising to end the ruling party's decades-long use of the courts and Congress as blunt instruments against the government's enemies. He said the PRI and the PAN are now doing exactly the same in their zeal to eliminate the major obstacle to their parties' presidential hopes next year.
His supporters also argue that even if Lopez Obrador technically broke the law, his infraction was minor compared with major crimes and corruption that routinely go unpunished in Mexico.
Lopez Obrador's opponents argue that he is trying to turn himself into a political martyr.
"For us, the rule of law is the key issue," said Jose Luis Barraza, president of the Business Coordinating Council, which represents many of the largest companies in Mexico. He said Lopez Obrador has a record of ignoring the law, which worries his organization.