In a move that could ignite a political firestorm, the Congress stripped Mexico City’s leftist mayor of his immunity from prosecution Thursday, possibly eliminating the leading contender from the 2006 presidential race.
Many Mexicans saw the vote, which is similar to an impeachment action by the U.S. Congress, as an underhanded political maneuver to eliminate populist Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from running for president, a risky move in a country still struggling to evolve its democracy.
President Vicente Fox, meanwhile, insisted that prosecuting the mayor -- for what many citizens considered to be an innocuous infraction -- was essential to Mexican rule of law.
Earlier in the day, Lopez Obrador had formally announced he would seek the Democratic Revolutionary Party’s nomination for president in next year’s election. Polls give him comfortable leads over front-runners in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Fox’s National Action Party (PAN).
An estimated 400,000 Lopez Obrador supporters, many of whom came from faraway states to support the beleaguered mayor, massed in Mexico City’s main square for the announcement and vote. Although analysts feared violence might break out, there were no reports of rowdiness.
The charismatic Lopez Obrador has built a strong following in the capital based on his social programs, including pensions for the elderly, free school supplies and ambitious public works programs. Like many other current leaders in Latin America, he has been an outspoken critic of globalization, saying that the benefits of free trade were oversold.
But he also faces prosecution in federal court for ignoring a 2001 court order to halt city construction of a hospital access road over a disputed plot of ground less than 60 yards long. Although it is not clear that Lopez Obrador ever knew of the court order won by a private landowner to stop public construction on the land, he has been targeted by federal prosecutors. The case now threatens to derail his political career.
Until Thursday, the federal attorney general could not bring a case against him because, like other high-level elected officials, the mayor enjoyed immunity from prosecution.
Now, just 15 months before the national election, the Chamber of Deputies’ 360-to-127 vote to strip him of his legal shield opens the way for the Fox government to bring a felony charge of abuse of authority against Lopez Obrador.
That will automatically disqualify him as a presidential candidate if the case is not resolved by Jan. 15, the deadline for candidates to register.
The attorney general’s office said this week that it would take the case to a judge within days of the congressional vote. If the judge decides the case merits a trial, the mayor could be jailed pending the outcome.
In testimony in his defense before Congress on Thursday, in which he inveighed against Fox, the Supreme Court and the opposing deputies present, Lopez Obrador said he would not seek to avoid jail and that he would conduct his presidential campaign from behind bars if necessary.
“I will say only I have violated no laws, that I never acted illegally, that it’s never been my intention to do any harm to anyone,” Lopez Obrador told Congress.
Fox has framed the prosecution of Lopez Obrador as imperative to upholding the rule of law. The type of restraining order, or amparo, that the mayor ignored is seen as a bulwark of Mexican law designed to give average citizens leverage against the rich or powerful in legal proceedings.
In a recent speech, Fox said that “accountability and respect for institutions are the true norms of democratic life.... In that there can be no exception. Respect for these fundamentals cannot be subject to the whims and desires of any individual or group.”
But most Mexicans don’t accept Fox’s reasoning. Nearly 80% of those polled last month by Mitofsky Consulting said they opposed the desafuero -- the Spanish term for the process of stripping the mayor of his immunity.
Many people interviewed in the city’s main square, the Zocalo, expressed their opposition.
“I am outraged by what is happening,” said Prospero Vega, 47, of the Xochimilco area of the capital. “Not only for what is happening to the mayor but for myself, that as a citizen my rights are being violated. This is what they do to someone doing a good job.”
In response to Fox’s argument, several legal experts noted that in contrast to this case, allegations of massive fraud in Mexico, such as the $140-million Pemexgate scandal, have gone unpunished. In that case, funds earmarked for oil union workers were allegedly funneled to the PRI. Fox himself has been implicated in a campaign spending case dating from the 2000 election, which has yet to come to trial.
Constitutional expert Leonardo Cordova of the National Autonomous University expressed incredulity that the Lopez Obrador case had gone this far, given the relative harmlessness of the alleged offense, public opposition to the process, and the fact that no public official in Mexico has ever been prosecuted for ignoring a court order.
“This would be a first for Mexico,” Cordova said, shaking his head. “Hundreds, thousands” of judicial orders are issued every day, he said, many of them ignored them by public officials.
A prosecution for defying an order is so rare that there is no penalty listed in the penal code for such an offense, Cordova said.
Samuel Gonzalez, a Mexico City criminal law expert, described the vote as “an abuse of the impeachment process” because high officials should be impeached only for “high crimes and misdemeanors. That has not been the case here.”
Pamela Starr, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute in the capital, said the rule of law in Mexico was applied “capriciously, and often the laws don’t make a lot of sense, given the realities of life in Mexico.”
Colegio de Mexico historian Lorenzo Meyer said Mexicans’ fundamental belief in democracy could be at stake if Lopez Obrador was not permitted to run for president because of what many of them perceive to be underhanded politics. Mexican democracy is still maturing five years after voters elected Fox, driving the PRI from power for the first time in seven decades.
“The essence of democracy is that citizens have to be able to select from alternatives to the present conditions,” Meyer said. “If you eliminate the alternative that most people seem to want, you are left with a democracy that is formal but not real, legal but not legitimate.”
This week, Lopez Obrador told supporters not to let their protests turn violent, which he said would feed opponents’ stereotype of the mayor as someone who believes he is above the law. That discipline seemed to hold in Mexico City and in Coahuila, Zacatecas and Michoacan states, where other rallies were held on his behalf.
“Our strategy is to maintain a civil resistance movement month by month and avoid any kind of confrontation that brings us in violation of the law or violence,” said Manuel Camacho Solis, a former Mexico City mayor and now a Lopez Obrador ally.
Although U.S. financial markets have expressed confidence in Mexico’s long-term future, some investors were nervously awaiting the outcome of the congressional vote. The index of Mexico’s main stock market, which closed before the vote, rose 2.47% on Thursday, after sustaining a 12% plunge in recent weeks.
Lopez Obrador is taking a leave of absence from his post to run for president. The city’s government secretary, Alejandro Encinas, will fill in for him.
Times staff writers Reed Johnson and Marla Dickerson, along with Cecilia Sanchez and Narayani Lasala in The Times’ Mexico City Bureau, contributed to this report.