Mexico Mayor Cleared for Presidential Run

Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador arrives at news conference after learning that he would be allowed to run in the upcoming presidential race.
Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador arrives at news conference after learning that he would be allowed to run in the upcoming presidential race. (By Daniel Aguilar -- Reuters)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 29, 2005

MEXICO CITY, April 28 -- President Vicente Fox declared Thursday that the "storm clouds" had cleared in a national political crisis after he took steps Wednesday to allow Mexico City's mayor, a popular presidential candidate, to remain in the 2006 race despite being charged with a minor federal crime.

Late Wednesday, Fox announced he had accepted the resignation of the attorney general, who was vigorously pursuing a legal case against the mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as public consternation and unrest mounted.

Fox said Thursday he had made the move to ensure the legitimacy of Mexico's political system before next year's election and to restore investor confidence in the country's economic stability, which has been shaken by the controversy.

"The path is now clear," Fox told a group of business executives. "We have gotten rid of the storm clouds, we have gotten rid of uncertainty, and we are ensuring that the electoral process of 2006 will be one in complete accordance with the law."

Reversing course after months of political hardball, Fox appeared on television Wednesday evening to announce he was replacing the prosecutor and ordering an "exhaustive review" of the case against Lopez Obrador. He said he wanted to find a solution "within the law" rather than continue a prosecution that could have kept the mayor from running for president.

The apparent resolution of Mexico's most emotionally charged political crisis in years was widely seen here as a defeat for the president. But analysts also said that by backing down, Fox had defused a conflict that was threatening Mexico's transition to democracy and could have undermined the election.

"This is a very positive turnaround for the political development of Mexico," said historian Lorenzo Meyer. "Now, after all, we will be able -- late, very late -- to have a real democratic transition."

Sergio Sarmiento, a political columnist, said Fox's move was good because it averted months of unrest and possible violence. But he said it was bad for the country because "it means there are two kinds of law -- one for average Mexicans, and one that applies to powerful people."

Several analysts also said the episode had greatly increased Lopez Obrador's chances of winning the presidency by expanding his support beyond Mexico City. "He's really built a national social movement," Meyer said. "Fox has been a great campaign manager for him."

Lopez Obrador is a tough-talking populist who has created a passionate following among the poor with lavish social spending but has aroused concern among Mexico's business elite, who say he increased the city's debt to fund social programs and win votes.

Meyer said he believed Fox had been advised by his business and political confidants that Lopez Obrador, if elected president, could damage Mexico's economy and therefore should be taken out of the race. He said Fox was out of touch with ordinary Mexicans and had "acted in bad faith."

Lopez Obrador, meeting with reporters Thursday morning, said he viewed Fox's decision favorably because it would help create "a relaxed environment that permits . . . the strengthening of institutions and Mexican democracy."

The legal case against Lopez Obrador centered on whether he ignored a 2001 court order to cease construction of an access road to a new hospital. That infraction, which Lopez Obrador denies, struck many Mexicans as trivial in a nation where public officials have often used their offices to get rich.

Lopez Obrador said he was the victim of a political lynching by his enemies, including Fox. Public opinion polls showed great sympathy for Lopez Obrador, and several hundred thousand supporters marched in Mexico City on Sunday.

Lopez Obrador said Thursday that Fox was forced to bow to pressure from his supporters, who he said were "putting politics back on the path of democracy."

Fox previously insisted that the case was not political but showed that Mexico was a country ruled by laws where even powerful figures could be prosecuted. He had pledged not to use his office to influence the outcome.

But Fox said Thursday he would propose changing the law prohibiting anyone facing criminal charges from running for public office, thus removing the legal obstacle that threatened to keep Lopez Obrador off the ballot.

Some analysts said Fox's decision, though it solved the immediate problem, had done long-term damage to the president's credibility and Mexico's political system. An opinion poll this week in El Universal newspaper showed that Fox's popularity had fallen recently. Of those polled, 65 percent disapproved of his handling of the Lopez Obrador case.

"Lopez Obrador won in the short run, but . . . there has been a net loss here for the credibility of the whole political system," said Ana Maria Salazar, a political analyst in Mexico City . "A lot of Mexicans look at the whole process and just want to throw up."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company