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Lopez Obrador takes office as Mexican president, vowing to fight corruption

Lopez Obrador takes office as Mexican president, vowing to fight corruption
Newly sworn-in President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during his inaugural ceremony Saturday at the National Congress in Mexico City, (Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was sworn into office Saturday as Mexico’s president, vowing to do away with corruption and launch a sweeping transformation of Mexican society amid widespread disenchantment spurred by rising crime, unchecked official graft and limited economic opportunities.

“Today begins a change in the political regime,” Lopez Obrador, donning the tricolor presidential sash, told lawmakers convened at the congressional palace where he formally assumed power.

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He pledged to fulfill his campaign promise for a “peaceful and orderly” transformation, “but at the same time, profound and radical,” promising to increase social spending and launch infrastructure projects while avoiding new taxes and holding gasoline and energy prices in check.

“The corruption and impunity that has impeded the rebirth of Mexico will end,” the new president added.

Lopez Obrador made yet another bow toward friendly relations with the United States and with President Trump, who has angered many Mexicans with comments and actions viewed as Mexico-bashing.

“I want to point out that from the day of my election I have received a respectful treatment from President Donald Trump, whom I thank for having sent to this ceremony in a message of friendship his daughter Ivanka,” Lopez Obrador said.

Ivanka Trump, who was seated in the audience next to Lopez Obrador’s wife, stood up in recognition of the shout-out from Mexico’s new president.

Lopez Obrador, who turned 65 last month and is widely known by his initials, AMLO, embarks on a single six-year term. Under Mexican law, presidents are not allowed to run for reelection.

He is Mexico’s first avowed leftist president in a generation and is also the first in modern history elected not as the candidate of a traditional political party but of his own left-wing political bloc. His populist oratory and anti-establishment message drew landslide support from Mexican voters discouraged by corruption scandals, slow economic growth and record homicide rates.

Seated to Lopez Obrador’s left at the handover ceremony was outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto, whom Lopez Obrador thanked publicly for “not intervening” in the July elections, “unlike other presidents in past elections.”

However, the new president proceeded to trash the legacy of his predecessor, assailing signature projects on energy and education reform, as Peña Nieto looked on uncomfortably. Lopez Obrador has already moved to cancel Peña Nieto’s multibillion-dollar plan for a new Mexico City airport, a move that sent Mexican markets and the peso tumbling and sapped business community confidence in the new administration.

On Saturday, in a conciliatory gesture to business leaders, Lopez Obrador repeated vows to respect existing contracts and foreign investments.

Lopez Obrador won decisively this year after having finished as a runner-up in the two previous elections, in 2012 and 2006. In both cases, Lopez Obrador alleged that voting fraud had denied him victory.

In his comments at the inauguration, Lopez Obrador pointedly denounced as a “disaster” the “neo-liberal” economic model — emphasizing free markets, global trade and foreign investment — that Peña Nieto and other recent Mexican leaders have embraced. Mexico’s new president has unveiled plans to improve Mexico’s dilapidated infrastructure, especially in the impoverished south, vowing to construct new train lines and refineries, signaling a return to the more nationalistic economic policies in place in Mexico before 1983 and a wave of privatizations.

He blamed his predecessor’s policy of opening up the energy sector to foreign firms for rising gasoline and electricity prices — a major complaint among Mexicans — and deflating oil production, while failing to generate much additional foreign investment.

The election of Lopez Obrador — a native of the southern state of Tabasco — has greatly raised expectations among many Mexicans, who turned out in the streets in the thousands to welcome him. The president faces major challenges in meeting the elevated hopes among his people, and many skeptics have questioned how he will fund his wide-ranging government blueprint.

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“I am an optimist,” Lopez Obrador said, vowing that Mexico would grow into a “model country” with expanded growth and opportunities.

“We are going to convert [Mexico] into an economic power,” said Lopez Obrador, who vowed to work 16 hours a day. “We will be a more just society.”

In two years, he said, he would call for a national vote to determine whether Mexicans wanted him to remain in office, building upon his vow to put matters to the voters — a practice that critics have already assailed as rigged in Lopez Obrador’s favor.

“Let the people decide if I stay or I go,” the president said. “Because the people give and the people take. I accept the challenge…. Viva Mexico!

The silver-haired, veteran politician and former Mexico City mayor revisited many of his campaign promises, including pledges to bolster social spending and attack inequality.

“For the good of all, the poor first,” Lopez Obrador said, repeating a phrase he has often employed. “Our longtime slogan today becomes a principle of government.”

He faces an uphill battle in eliminating corruption in a nation where patronage and graft have long been embedded in the political process. Mexican political leaders routinely vow to do away with corruption, but illicit payments and pilfering of public funds have continued.

Lopez Obrador won the presidency in national balloting July 1, garnering 53% of the vote and finishing 30 percentage points ahead of his nearest challenger.

He ran under the banner of his own leftist political bloc, the National Regeneration Movement, known as Morena, which has abruptly been transformed into the nation’s most powerful political bloc.

The new president enjoys majorities in both houses of the Mexican Congress, and his party also controls the mayoralty of Mexico City, the capital. Some have expressed concern about a concentration of power not seen in Mexico since the heyday of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which dominated Mexican politics for much of the 20th century.

Among other promises made Saturday, Mexico’s new president vowed to set up a commission to investigate one of Mexico’s most enduring mysteries — the disappearance of 43 teacher trainees in 2014 in western Guerrero state. The so-called Ayotzinapa case has become a rallying cry for human rights activists and others who suspect government complicity in the students’ disappearance.

Lopez Obrador said he was also asking legislators for a constitutional reform to allow for the creation of a national guard “with complete respect for human rights” to assist in maintaining public security. Lopez Obrador has previously conceded the need to keep military troops on the streets — where they have patrolled for more than a decade — because of the inability of ill-paid and corruption-ridden Mexican police to stand up to well-armed criminal gangs.

Notably not present for the inauguration ceremony was Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. He was expected to attend a lunch at the National Palace.

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Earlier, lawmakers from the center-right National Action Party had mounted a banner in the congressional palace saying that Maduro “was not welcome” in Mexico.

Among the dignitaries who traveled to Mexico City for the inauguration was U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

As promised, the Mexican government opened the gates of the longtime presidential palace, Los Pinos, six miles west of downtown, to the public, prompting many families to flock to what had for decades been a heavily guarded structure. Visitors watched Lopez Obrador’s speech on giant screens in the verdant gardens.

People passed through without security checks and strolled onto the grounds, snapping selfies in wonderment at sudden access to a long-restricted site.

Lopez Obrador has said that he will first live at home, then in the National Palace downtown, and that Los Pinos will be transformed into a public space for cultural events.

Lopez Obrador, who has pledged to run an austere government, arrived for his inauguration in his now-familiar Volkswagen sedan, in a phalanx of vehicles flanked by police and press motorcycles.

By contrast, Peña Nieto arrived in a convoy of black SUVs and emerged at the congressional palace amid a coterie of security officials.

Later, well-wishers lined the streets of the capital as the white sedan took Mexico’s new president to the National Palace downtown. After a lunch with dignitaries, Lopez Obrador was expected to address the multitudes gathering in Mexico City’s zocalo, or central square.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

3:55 p.m.: This article was updated with information on Lopez Obrador’s plans for a national guard.

This article was originally published at 2:55 p.m.

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