Mexico's Lopez Obrador Loves a Good Fight

The Associated Press
Thursday, July 6, 2006; 2:01 PM

NACAJUCA, Mexico -- The role of a man cheated out of an election comes naturally to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

In 1994, after narrowly losing the Tabasco governor's race to Roberto Madrazo, he called on his supporters and governed from the streets, undermining Madrazo's already fragile administration.

He at least beat Madrazo this time, in the race for Mexico's president, only to find himself just shy of a victory over ruling party candidate Felipe Calderon.

While Calderon begins planning his government, Lopez Obrador is planning what he lives for: a good fight. He's already promised to take his allegations of a fraudulent election to Mexico's top electoral court, an effort to get the results overturned in his favor.

If that doesn't work, he will likely lead his Democratic Revolution Party in its new role as the government's main opponent.

The 52-year-old former Mexico City mayor is quick to blame his losses on secretive plots by unnamed dark forces.

On Thursday, when it became clear he was trailing Calderon, he said conspiratorially of the ruling party: "They know very well that they don't have anything to celebrate. It is all choreographed."

With a cultlike following among the poor, he sees the world in black-and-white, and battles evil by mobilizing millions of supporters. As mayor a year ago, when a legal dispute threatened to keep him from running for the presidency, he led massive street protests and refused to accept a court order to stop construction of a road.

He won that battle. Under intense public pressure, the Fox administration dropped the case.

Lopez Obrador prides himself as being an outsider, even when he's holding political office. As mayor, he ignored criticism that he was ballooning the city budget and gave out pensions to single mothers and the elderly.

He was born and raised in the humid Gulf Coast state of Tabasco, a place that stands as a testament to the successes and failures of the charismatic leader's big government solutions.

The son of middle-class shopkeepers in the tiny riverside hamlet of Tepetitan, Lopez Obrador traveled to Mexico City to earn a political science degree and later returned to work around the town of Nacajuca as director of Indian development. He remains fascinated by Tabasco, and has written books about it.

From his childhood, Lopez Obrador remembers fondly the era of Adolfo Lopez Mateos, president from 1958 to 1964. Lopez Mateos handed out free school textbooks, nationalized foreign firms and antagonized the United States by recognizing Cuba's Fidel Castro. But he also crushed strikes and led a patronage machine.

The pension programs and big expressway projects that Lopez Obrador championed in Mexico City as mayor from 2000 to 2005 are the kind of thing he first practiced in this Chontal Indian farming region in the late 1970s.

But many of Lopez Obrador's projects haven't stood the test of time. The subsistence agricultural plots he ordered dredged out of local lagoons have largely been abandoned, as have the broom factories and handicraft workshops he set up to create jobs.

"He never asked for opinions. He just said what had to be done," remembers Mercedes Obando Osorio, a housewife in the Chontal Indian hamlet of Olcuatitan, just outside Nacajuca. "He just set about designing things."

© 2006 The Associated Press