For days before President Felipe Calderon’s scheduled appearance Saturday at a joint session of Congress, opposing lawmakers argued over the stage directions of what used to be a routine bit of political theater.
Would Calderon deliver the annual state of the nation report in writing, or would he make a speech? How many of the 13 steps of the dais would he be allowed to climb? Or would he be kept out of the chambers altogether?
On Saturday, the president entered Congress and delivered his views -- in writing. Calderon made it to the top of the dais, but spoke for just 90 seconds. It was a small victory for the president (tempered by the fact that a third of the legislature boycotted his appearance).
“We won’t accept an illegitimate president,” said Leonel Cota, president of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, explaining why his entire caucus had left the chamber. “We won’t tolerate one minute of Calderon’s presence.”
Members of the PRD and other leftist parties believe their candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was cheated out of victory by Calderon’s conservative National Action Party, or PAN, in the July 2006 presidential election.
The dispute over the vote, which Calderon won by less than a percentage point, has tainted Mexico’s political culture ever since.
Last year, a scrum of wrestling legislators prevented outgoing President Vicente Fox from entering the chambers for his final state of the nation report; he too turned in written remarks.
Then, opposing legislators engaged in fisticuffs and shoving matches over control of the congressional dais in the days and hours before Calderon was inaugurated there on Dec. 1.
No punches were thrown Saturday.
“We’ve had a ceremony without any fighting or conflicts,” analyst Benito Nacif said. “I think this is a step forward we should celebrate.”
After days of private and public negotiations, leaders of the PAN and PRD agreed to an official ceremony that allowed both sides to save face.
Calderon complied with his constitutional obligation to attend the joint session of Congress, while PRD legislators were able to continue their public rejection of his rule.
“In the end, we were able to show ability to dialogue,” PAN Sen. Santiago Creel said.
Calderon will address the Mexican people on television today, a day later than tradition dictates, before a handpicked audience at the National Palace.
Many commentators said the state of the nation speech, which has been given on Sept. 1 since the Mexican Revolution in 1910, would probably become a thing of the past.
“Today the tradition ends,” commentator Jaime Sanchez Susarrey wrote in the newspaper Reforma on Saturday. “It’s the best way to avoid all-out warfare.”
Until 2000, Mexico was a virtual one-party state ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The PRI, as the party is known, designated Sept. 1 as a national holiday and an undeclared celebration of presidential power. The president would travel to Congress for his state of the nation speech in an open-car parade feted with streams of confetti.
But the PRI’s political theater hasn’t survived the transition to multi-party democracy.
With no party holding a majority of seats in Congress, the leading parties have agreed to rotate leadership positions in both houses of the legislature. Ruth Zavaleta of the PRD became the new president of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, on Thursday.
Congressional protocol dictated that Zavaleta be the one to accept Calderon’s report Saturday. For days, Mexicans speculated whether Zavaleta would do so. She faced pressure from party die-hards, who said she should refrain from doing anything that would imply the PRD recognized Calderon as president.
Minutes before Calderon entered Saturday, Zavaleta addressed the joint session. She said she would recuse herself rather than “accept a document from a person whose election is questioned by millions of Mexicans.”
A few minutes after Zavaleta and the other leftist legislators walked out, Calderon entered the chambers to cheers from PAN lawmakers.
“Felipe! Felipe! Felipe!” they chanted.
Calderon smiled broadly, shook many hands and rose to the dais to hand a thick document to Creel, the president of the Senate.
The state of the nation report was also published on the Internet.
And what is the state of the nation?
In the report, Calderon cited progress in the war against drug traffickers, saying his government had confiscated more than 2 tons of cocaine and shut down dozens of methamphetamine labs and more than 1,600 farms growing opium poppies.
He acknowledged that immigration to the United States by Mexico’s poorest citizens still remained at distressingly high levels. He proposed an anti-poverty program to address the crisis.
“We need to invest more public resources in the well-being and the progress of the people,” Calderon said in the report. He has proposed a government tax break for employers who hire young and inexperienced workers.
But political analyst Jesus Silva-Herzog said that Calderon had done little to stimulate economic growth in his first nine months in office.
“We haven’t seen any surprises,” Silva-Herzog said. “What we have is a continuation of the economic vision of the previous administration. We face a future with few hopes in terms of economic growth, or the creation of new jobs.”
Maria Antonieta Uribe of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.