26 October 2007

The nation’s ‘legitimate president’ soldiers on in spite of facts


By David Agren
The News

TEPEACA, Pue. – Pedro de la Cruz García, a 72-year-old farmer from this rural community 40 kilometers east of Puebla city woke early on a recent Sunday morning, pulled on a bright yellow shirt, gray pants and a pair of well-worn sandals and started walking. Using a cane for assistance, he managed to make the kilometer-long trek to the town square in time for the start of a rally organized by 2006 presidential runner-up Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the left-leaning PRD.

Like many of the approximately 200 other supporters gathered in the square, de la Cruz calls López Obrador the “legitimate president of Mexico” and considers last year’s election – which his candidate lost to Felipe Calderón of the conservative PAN by less than a percentage point – to have been rigged.

López Obrador also believed the results were rigged, and following the election, he filed a petition asking the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TRIFE) for a vote-by-vote recount. The TRIFE denied the request two months later, but that hardly deterred the candidate popularly known as AMLO. Instead, the former Mexico City mayor vowed to defy the ruling and promised to make the nation ungovernable. He declared himself the legitimate president, formed a parallel cabinet and returned to rallying support from his die-hard constituency, drawn primarily from the poor and working classes.

A year after the Court’s ruling, the “legitimate president” tag still rings true for people like those at the Tepeaca rally. Few were willing to consider Calderón as their rightful leader, and others would only mention his name as part of an insult. One attendee, Ernesto Rodríguez, held a sign reading, “Felipe Calderón is the bastard son of [Vicente] Fox.”

The view at the rally is less commonly held across Mexico as a majority of the population has moved on from the contentious July 2, 2006 election and considers Calderón the true victor. In a poll published by Grupo Reforma on the one-year anniversary of the election, 36 percent of respondents still viewed the results as tainted, but 31 percent of López Obrador voters said they wouldn’t opt for him again. (López Obrador has long taken issue with Grupo Reforma’s polling methods and editorial policy.)

Even in the republic’s poorest and most remote municipalities, which López Obrador tours tirelessly, turnout for his events appears to be diminishing. In Tepeaca, several observers estimated the crowd size at roughly 20 percent of the total that came out for a pre-election appearance.

Despite emerging from a tight election with a precarious sense of legitimacy, Calderón’s approval rating now hovers in the 65-percent range – due in part to an aggressive stance against drug cartels. Furthermore, with backing from the PRI, Mexico’s third party, Calderón achieved passage of a pension reform bill during the spring and a comprehensive fiscal reform package last month. López Obrador urged his party to never negotiate with president, but some PRD legislators sat down with Calderón and his secretaries before eventually voting against fiscal reform. When AMLO called on PRD lawmakers to disrupt the voting, the plan fizzled. A poll by Ulises Beltrán y Asociados showed that 70 percent of respondents disagreed with AMLO’s tactics.

López Obrador’s strategy of organizing an alternative government and eschewing contact with Calderón baffles some political observers, who say that he could be more effective leading a responsible opposition instead of waiting for the economy to collapse or for the president to stumble.

“He’s hoping that Felipe Calderón will fall on his face and that the (downtrodden) will carry him on their shoulders to victory,” says George Grayson, a government professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and the author of a biography of López Obrador.

A ‘Cordial Relashionship’

While Calderón solidifies his grip on the presidency, López Obrador’s persistence presents challenges for members of his PRD, which made impressive gains in the last congressional elections and holds second-place status in Congress.

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Grayson said. “He still has a lot of supporters in the PRD.”

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, has pledged support for López Obrador, but all five PRD governors have kept their distance and even have met with Calderón. None of the governors attended a July 1 López Obrador rally in Mexico City’s Zócalo. Only Ebrard appeared with the “legitimate president.”

There are other signs suggesting López Obrador may be losing influence within the PRD. For example, indications are his candidate for party president, Alejandro Encinas, will not win the party election. And PRD leaders in Oaxaca are calling for him to be stripped of party privileges since he campaigned for non-PRD candidates in local elections there.

Mexico City-based political analyst Dan Lund, however, disagrees with the idea that the PRD is fracturing over López Obrador.

“You’d have to be silly to view him as a liability because the PRD would have disappeared had it not been for him,” Lund said. “Everyone views him as political capital.”

Even so, Jorge Agustín Ortiz, a López Obrado coordinator, acknowledged some separation between AMLO and the PRD.

“Andrés Manuel has a cordial relationship with the PRD, but he has his own movement,” Ortiz said.

The movement, called the Convención Nacional Democrática, or National Democratic Convention, organizes López Obrador followers at the grass-roots level. It claims 1.5 million members and signs up new ones at every rally.

Lund says López Obrador’s goal is to build a pacifist social movement – something rare in a country with a history of authoritarianism and violence. Other political commentators suggest a different motive. In a recent column in the Milenio newspaper, analyst Román Revueltas speculated that López Obrador might be planning a break with the PRD in order start a new party.

It’s all being built with little fanfare, though. López Obrador’s presence in the media spotlight has diminished. As mayor of Mexico City and later a leading presidential candidate, he frequently made the front pages. His daily predawn press conferences provided timely fresh content for the capital’s electronic media outlets. Nowadays, López Obrador appears on a weekly television program Tuesday mornings at 1 a.m. on TV Azteca. His rallies receive scant coverage.


Unlike the constitutional president, López Obrador travels light without much security. He arrived at the event in Tepeaca in a white SUV with no hubcaps and then casually waded through a throng of supporters toward the stage.

During his speech, he mentioned his travails from 2006, but mostly focused on populist issues like rising food and gasoline prices and lavish presidential pensions.

The message resonated with de la Cruz, the elderly farmer who walked a kilometer with a cane to hear it. Afterward, he signed up for the Convención Nacional Democrática.

When López Obrador was mayor of Mexico City, he says, “Things worked, he supported the disabled [and] he was giving money to seniors. Who’s given me even five cents? Nobody.”

After 40 minutes with the crowd in Tepeaca, López Obrador climbed back into his SUV and headed off for another six rallies scheduled for that day. He plans to eventually speak in each of the nation’s 2,438 municipalities, where his message of social justice and benefits for the poor is likely to attract at least some followers of the “legitimate president.”

Many though, have fallen away, including Mexico City taxi driver Dario Espinosa.

"I used to support him, but not any longer," Espinosa says, explaining that he disagreed with López Obrador's six-week blockade of central Mexico City last summer.

"I think he's through."

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