Mexico Leftist Threatens to Block Rival

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 2, 2006; 8:05 PM

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's leftist presidential candidate threatened to disrupt the swearing in of his ruling party rival Saturday, a day after lawmakers blocked the outgoing president from delivering his state-of-the-nation speech to Congress in an escalating crisis over the July 2 election.

Leftist legislators yelling for a recount of votes surrounded the congressional podium on Friday, leaving President Vicente Fox, wearing his presidential sash, standing at the door of the chambers with no choice but to hand in his annual, written report and leave.

Leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he will never recognize a victory by ruling-party candidate Felipe Calderon and says he will declare himself as the alternative president.

The bold move by leftist lawmakers on Friday caused concern about whether the election dispute was spiraling out of control and threatening Mexico's still-fragile democracy.

It also raised the question of whether the next president can rule effectively after Fox's administration has tolerated Lopez Obrador's blocking one of the capital's major streets for weeks and keeping the president from speaking to lawmakers.

Lopez Obrador's campaign spokesman Jesus Ortega said Saturday the candidate's supporters will stop Calderon from being sworn in on Dec. 1. He spoke in an interview with the Mexican radio station Formato 21.

With the Federal Electoral Tribunal likely to declare Calderon president-elect this week, the battle is expected to intensify between Fox, who has been reluctant to intervene in the growing national strife, and Lopez Obrador, who has vowed to govern Mexico from the streets.

Lopez Obrador, who claims fraud and dirty tricks robbed him of the presidency July 2, has called supporters to a mass meeting to plot strategy on Sept. 16 in Mexico City's central plaza _ the same day and place Mexico's army stages an annual parade.

So far the president has kept arms length from the crisis even as thousands of Lopez Obrador supporters have filled the capital's financial and historic districts with sprawling tent cities.

Fox also has done little to halt chaos in the provincial capital of Oaxaca, where a teachers' strike had developed into a sometimes-violent rebellion against a state governor.

Friday's protest marked the first time in modern history, a Mexican president has not given his yearly address in person to the Congress. Fox was forced to air a recorded speech on national television that touted his government's accomplishments, while skirting a direct mention of the country's worst political crisis in modern history. It cut to video of smiling school children and other cheerful scenes.

The cancellation of his last state-of-the-nation speech as leftist lawmakers stood in the chambers holding banners calling him a traitor was a stark contrast to the mood of Fox's historic victory in 2000, when Mexicans celebrated as proof that the country had finally become a true democracy.

Political commentator Homero Aridjis said Fox may have ended 71 years of authoritarian, single-party rule _ and his conservative fiscal policies have stabilized the peso _ but his legacy is "leaving us with political collapse."

The former Coca-Cola manager has failed to alleviate poverty or usher in reforms he described as essential, stymied by his inability to cajole an opposition-dominated legislature.

But his biggest challenge has come at the end of his six-year term. How he handles the deepening crisis in his final three months in office will be crucial to the fate of the country's democracy.

Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, has portrayed himself as the savior of the poor while painting Calderon and his business-friendly National Action Party as representing the rich.

Some analysts say Fox needs to use his party's increased weight in the newly elected Congress to push through social programs that will benefit the poor and possibly diffuse Lopez Obrador's support and smooth the transition for Calderon.

"If Congress approves a social program that helps the mass of Mexican people, no one will remember whether Calderon won by 250,000 votes or 25 million votes," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "You create your own mandate."

© 2006 The Associated Press