Mexico gets ‘president,’ stage left

Times Staff Writer

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist who claims to have been cheated out of victory in July’s presidential election, took an “oath of office” Monday as the “legitimate president” of Mexico in an elaborate ritual his many detractors here ridiculed as a farce.

The ceremony in this capital city came less than two weeks before the inauguration of the man who officially won the election, conservative Felipe Calderon. As many as 100,000 people attended the event, in which Lopez Obrador, the city’s 52-year-old former mayor, also swore in a six-man, six-woman shadow Cabinet.

“It is an honor to be the legitimate president of Mexico and above all the leader of free men and women like you,” Lopez Obrador told the crowd after leftist senator and human rights activist Rosario Ibarra de Piedra placed a “presidential sash” over his shoulder.


Lopez Obrador has styled himself as the defender of this nation’s impoverished majority. His self-coronation wasn’t the first time in Mexico’s tumultuous history that a losing candidate had proclaimed himself the “legitimate president” (three did so between 1910 and 1940), and it may not augur well for Mexico’s future political stability.

“He is not doing this to make sure that Calderon governs in the name of the poor. He’s trying to make sure that Calderon can’t govern at all,” Denise Dresser, a political analyst here, said of Lopez Obrador’s decision to create a parallel government. “He is leading many Mexicans to believe that change in this country cannot occur through peaceful means.”

On Sept. 5, after weeks of partial recounts and legal pleadings alleging fraud, Mexico’s highest electoral court proclaimed Calderon the winner of the presidential election by 234,000 votes, or 0.56 percentage point.

Calderon did not comment Monday on his rival’s inauguration. The newspaper Reforma published a poll that found two in three Mexicans believed Lopez Obrador had “little or no” credibility. But one in five respondents thought he was right to proclaim himself president.

Lopez Obrador urged his followers not to recognize Calderon’s government.

“We are congregated here because in the face of the electoral fraud of July 2, we have decided to abolish the regime of corruption and privilege,” he said. “We will begin the construction of a new republic.”

Monday’s swearing-in took place amid a festive atmosphere in Mexico City’s central plaza, the Zocalo, with a contingent of invited foreign dignitaries that included Brazilian community activists and the Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez.


Supporters chanted “Presidente!”

“I’m here because I voted for him and because I believe he is the legitimate president of Mexico,” said Josafat Lagos, 56, an accountant. “The hope of the people is that he will be a counterbalance to the abuses and corruption of the powerful.”

On Friday, Ruben Aguilar, spokesman for outgoing President Vicente Fox, said he did not believe many Mexicans would see Lopez Obrador as the “legitimate president.”

“The citizens of this country won’t be fooled,” Aguilar said. “This is a mature society. The people voted ... they made their decision.”

Lopez Obrador’s critics in Mexico and abroad denounced his decision to proclaim himself president as a dangerous farce -- the “Republic of the Ugly Duckling,” some commentators here have called it.

Much of the Mexican media, and many political observers, lambasted the inauguration as a “caricature” and the desperate act of an egomaniac.

“Lopez Obrador has become a parody of himself, a bad joke,” said Jaime Sanchez Susarrey, a Guadalajara professor and author. “He’s lost a great deal of legitimacy, even among his own supporters.”


In an interview published Monday in the daily newspaper La Jornada, Lopez Obrador said he didn’t care about “the attacks and jokes of the right,” because he would rule “in the name of the people” against a “neo-fascist regime that only benefits a privileged minority.”

Calderon, Lopez Obrador said, is “a puppet, a little manager at the service of the powerful, who will always be rejected by the people.”

Legislators of Lopez Obrador’s leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, have promised to prevent Calderon from being inaugurated before a joint session of Congress on Dec. 1, much as they kept Fox from delivering his state of the nation address in September.

Calderon has resisted pleas from Fox and others that he take the oath of office at another location. His attempts to negotiate with legislators of the PRD have been rebuffed. A showdown in the halls of Congress appears inevitable.

Lopez Obrador will support his “government” through popular donations. He said Monday that its main activities would consist of proposing legislation to Congress and monitoring the actions of the Calderon administration.

Calderon will face numerous challenges to his authority, including popular movements led by charismatic radicals in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Drug cartels often operate with impunity in border cities such as Nuevo Laredo and the impoverished southern states of Guerrero and Michoacan.


“Calderon is going to have to prove, in a short time, that free markets and liberal democracy still work,” Dresser said. “If he doesn’t, he’s going to have someone on the streets [Lopez Obrador] pointing out that they don’t work.”

Mexico’s long history is dotted with parallel Congresses and parallel presidencies, many of which have arisen in times of social conflict and change.

In the 20th century, three men called themselves “president-elect” or “provisional president” after what they said were fraudulent elections: Francisco I. Madero in 1910, Jose Vasconcelos in 1929 and Alfredo Almazan in 1940.

Of those, only Madero eventually took office, after issuing the call to arms on Nov. 20, 1910, that sparked the Mexican Revolution.

After two years in office, Madero was assassinated in a coup d’etat.