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Dispute over election keeps Mexico on edge

Supporters refuse to admit that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador lost the presidential election and vow to set up their own government in protest.

Published October 8, 2006

Times Latin America Correspondent

MEXICO CITY — Esperanza Luna, 60, spent 48 days this summer sleeping on a mattress under a tent in Mexico’s colonial plaza, the Zocalo.

“It was an ordeal, but we had to support our candidate,” she said. “A massive fraud was perpetrated on us.”
Luna and many other Mexicans say they remain convinced that presidential elections in early July were stolen by the country’s political and business elite.

The sit-in by thousands of supporters of leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador lasted 2½ months, even after a partial recount ratified the results.

But the political battle over July’s election results is far from over. Unlike the bitterly contested U.S. presidential election in 2000, Lopez Obrador refuses to follow Al Gore’s example and accept defeat.

Instead, he vows he will never recognize the victory of conservative candidate Felipe Calderon, who was confirmed president-elect last month by electoral officials.

Lopez Obrador is not kidding, either.

His supporters, drawn mostly from poor urban areas such as Mexico City and the rural south, declared him the legitimate president-elect at a “democratic national convention” organized by the Democratic Revolutionary Party, which he heads.

Next month, they plan to anoint him president in a “people’s” ceremony — complete with presidential sash. A cabinet is being drawn up, but Lopez Obrador’s supporters don’t want anyone to call it a “parallel” or “shadow” government.

“We are the government,” said PRD spokesman Gerardo Fernandez Norona. “We are disputing the representation of the nation with the usurper.”

Most ominous, the party is directing a campaign of “civil resistance’’ to try to prevent Calderon from being sworn in Dec. 1. The party says it plans to blockade the Congress building where the official ceremony is held with thousands of demonstrators — the sort of action even the most strident U.S. Democrats shied away from in 2000.

“We can’t accept the results,” said Fernandez Norona. “To do that would be a step back for Mexican democracy. We are not going to betray the Mexican people.”

Asking the PRD to accept defeat, he said, was like police telling a man whose wife has been raped during a home invasion to “sort it out” amicably with the assailants.

Mexico is not like the United States, where power switches back and forth between the two parties, Fernandez Norona said.

“Here, they have never let us govern,” he said. He said the PRD was denied victory in elections widely recognized as fraudulent in 1988.

“The difference between the United States and here is that (in Mexico) there is no political cost for you or your party of continuing the fight,” said Ana Maria Salazar, a Harvard-educated political scientist who hosts a radio show and Internet blog on Mexican politics. “Losing with grace in the United States has a lot of value politically. Here it doesn’t.”

Mexico only recently emerged from decades of one-party rule and a long tradition of political corruption. While there has been notable progress in some areas, the democratic transition is still in its infancy, analysts say.

“Pride in our institutions is still lacking,” said Roger Bartra, a leading sociologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “People don’t trust democracy because it hasn’t satisfied their needs.”

But as the weeks go by, Lopez Obrador’s campaign could be running out of steam.

Although polls show 40 percent of Mexicans believe there was fraud, public support for Lopez Obrador has crumbled from 35 percent on election day to the low 20s.

Many people express anger over the sit-in and a campaign of street demonstrations that have played havoc with traffic in one of the world’s most congested cities.

These days many Mexicans have other, more important, things on their minds besides the election. That includes Luna, the 60-year-old demonstrator. She was back in the Zocalo this week for another protest march. But this time it wasn’t in support of Lopez Obrador, but against plans by the PRD-controlled city government to take over administration of locally run “people’s cemeteries.”

“The politicians want to make a business out of everything, including the dead, because they think they can make a business out of it,” she said, standing next to a coffin draped with the slogan: “The cemeteries of the people can’t be stolen or sold.”

Troubling as they may seem from the outside, street protests are part of daily life in Mexico, where lack of faith in politicians easily translates into social action.

Even so, few are willing to bet on Mexico’s political stability. Most don’t believe Lopez Obrador will fade away completely. And Calderon won by barely 0.5 percent, or 230,000 votes of 41-million ballots.

A bitter political dispute in the southern state of Oaxaca serves as a daily reminder of the risk of social upheaval. A 4-month-old teachers strike has turned into open revolt, shutting down one of Mexico’s most attractive colonial cities.

All eyes are on elections Sunday for governor in Lopez Obrador’s home state of Tabasco, where the PRD is trailing in the polls to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, which ruled Mexico for 70 years until it lost the country’s first truly democratic elections in 2000.

Defeat would be highly embarrassing for Lopez Obrador and further deflate his credibility.

Some question if Lopez Obrador’s refusal to back down could inspire violence in the capital, too. But so far the PRD has rejected calls by radical groups for insurrection.

In the Zocalo, Luna’s cemetery protest began by ramming a coffin into the gates of the city government building. But that’s as violent as it got.

Despite her opposition to the PRD’s cemetery policy, Luna said she would continue to stand by Lopez Obrador.
“We are with him to the end,” she said. “He’s not beaten yet.”

David Adams can be reached at

[Last modified October 8, 2006, 21:39:33]

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