Leftists Block Fox’s Final State of the Nation Address
More than 150 shouting leftist legislators stormed the dais at a joint session of Congress on Friday to prevent President Vicente Fox from delivering his final State of the Nation speech, a bold protest that heightened the crisis surrounding Mexico’s disputed presidential election.
Fox, wearing his presidential sash as he was blocked from reaching the lectern, handed a copy of his address to congressional officials at a door leading to the legislative chambers as the lawmakers chanted slogans and held signs accusing him of stealing the July 2 election on behalf of conservative candidate Felipe Calderon.
Although such speeches in the chamber have been disrupted in the past by opposition protests, including by Fox before he took power, it is the first time legislators have forced a Mexican president to forgo delivering a State of the Nation address to Congress.
“Given the actions of a group of legislators who make it impossible for me to deliver the message I have prepared for this occasion, I am leaving the chambers,” Fox said via a remote microphone moments after handing over his prepared text.
The political theater inside Mexico’s legislature was the first act of what could be a tumultuous month of protests led by supporters of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is challenging Calderon’s apparent victory.
The confrontation between the outgoing president and opposition legislators capped a tense day in the capital that began with Congress’ “legislative palace” surrounded by more than 8,000 police officers and scattered army troops.
Leaders of Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, had warned for days that they would prevent Fox from delivering his annual speech. Many residents of Mexico City had feared violent street clashes between Lopez Obrador supporters and police.
The leftist candidate lost by less than a percentage point to Calderon, who, like Fox, belongs to the National Action Party, or PAN. For weeks, Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, has led mass protests demanding a national recount, saying his victory was stolen through widespread fraud.
The election is now in the hands of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Tribunal, a seven-judge panel that has rejected Lopez Obrador’s petition for a full recount.
The tribunal must declare a winner of the election by Wednesday. Fox is to step down Dec. 1.
Several blocks surrounding Congress have been sealed off for weeks, creating a virtual “green zone” in the heart of Mexico City as the Fox government has sought to keep protesting Lopez Obrador supporters at bay.
On Friday, some subway stations were closed and streets were sealed off near the presidential residence in Chapultepec Park.
Federal and city police blocked streets as far as a mile away from Congress, many of them massing along a perimeter of steel barricades.
In his party’s official speech preceding the president’s scheduled appearance, PRD legislator Carlos Navarrete said Fox’s government had violated the Mexican Constitution by imposing an undeclared “state of siege” on the congressional building.
“At what moment, when did this Congress approve a suspension of our civil liberties?” Navarrete asked from the dais.
His words were a signal for the delegation from the PRD and two allied leftist parties to rise from their seats and rush the stage.
The PRD would occupy the chambers until Fox removed the police cordon, Navarrete said.
Congressional President Jorge Zermeno, sitting at the center of the dais, tried in vain to restore order.
“I ask the legislators from the Party of the Democratic Revolution to return to their seats,” Zermeno said as the lawmakers chanted slogans around him.
PRD legislators told reporters this week that they might interrupt Fox’s speech with trumpets and whistles, or simply block the aisles to keep him from reaching the lectern.
Besides alleging outright fraud in the July 2 election, Lopez Obrador’s supporters have charged Fox with aiding the Calderon campaign in violation of Mexico’s strict election laws.
The tribunal ruled this week that it had found no evidence of fraud, but it has not yet ruled on the allegations against Fox, which could be grounds for throwing out the vote results.
As the legislators milled in the chambers before the session began, the leftists remained mum about what form their protest would take.
“We’re going to give the president the greeting he deserves,” congressional deputy Ramon Castillo, from Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, said with a smile.
The PAN leadership assigned some of the burliest members of its congressional delegation to be part of the “courtesy committee” that would officially greet the president, presumably to help protect him from the opposition lawmakers.
“They asked for volunteers, but a lot of people didn’t want to do it,” said Enrique Barrios Rodriguez, a conservative congressman from the northern state of Nuevo Leon and a former boxing champion, who was part of the committee.
“The thing will be for everyone to stay calm,” he said.
Marcos Salas Contreras, a PAN congressional deputy representing Veracruz state, said leaders of his party had attempted to contact PRD legislators in a bid to keep order during the session. They were rebuffed, he said.
“We’re going to wait for them to see reason,” Salas Contreras said as the protesting legislators stood on the dais with signs that read, “Fox: Traitor!”
“If they don’t see reason, the document will merely be handed over by the president,” he said.
Moments later, Fox appeared at the door to do just that. His supporters clapped and chanted, “Vicente!”
After the president turned over his speech, the session was declared in recess and legislators from the opposing parties joined in singing Mexico’s national anthem.
Earlier in the day, thousands of demonstrators led by Lopez Obrador gathered at the capital’s central square, known as the Zocalo.
“A revolution has begun ... in which the people say to hell with their institutions,” Lopez Obrador told a cheering crowd. “They can’t legitimize or legalize a government of usurpers, because they stole the election and the majority of the people know that.”
Lopez Obrador has called on supporters to form a parallel government during a “national convention” Sept. 16, the day when Mexican independence is celebrated.
His supporters have occupied Mexico City’s central avenue, the Paseo de la Reforma, since July 30.
After being thwarted in Congress, Fox delivered his speech on television late Friday from his residence.
He began with an attack on those who had kept him from addressing lawmakers.
“This attitude contrary to democratic practices and the exercise of liberties does not represent an attack on me personally, but rather on the office of the presidency and the entire Mexican people,” he said.
Mexicans had high hopes for Fox’s presidency, which marked the end of Mexico’s single-party rule.
Fox had the charisma, physical stature and cowboy swagger to convince voters in 2000 that he alone could defeat the Institutional Revolutionary Party, a once-invincible political machine that controlled Mexico for seven decades.
But sluggish economic growth, hundreds of drug war killings and continuing poverty among half of Mexico’s 106 million people has made his presidency a disappointment to many.
Fox had hoped to make Mexico’s advance toward democracy a hallmark of his term.
Lopez Obrador’s accusations of election fraud against his administration have raised doubts among some Mexicans.