Saturday, April 30, 2005

desafuero down-low

I imagine by now that most everyone has heard about the ongoing situation here with Mexico City's mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. It's really quite a fascinating case, although I certainly realize that I can call it "fascinating" because I'm viewing the whole thing through the eye of a foreigner. If I were a Mexican citizen, I'd probably be more likely to characterize it as "horribly tragic" or as "absolutely infuriating and offensive" -- much the same way that I as a U.S. citizen might characterize, say, the nomination of Michael Bolton as the ambassador to the U.N.

Anyway, the long and short of it is this: Lopez Obrador, the highly popular leftist mayor has been stripped of his immunity from prosecution by the PAN and PRI party members of Congress (Lopez Obrador, known in Mexico as AMLO, is a member of the PRD) so that he can be charged for ignoring a court injunction to stop building an access road to a hospital. As a result, he may or may not still be the mayor of the city, and, more importantly, he likely will be disqualified from running for president in 2006. For the past year or so, he has been the front-runner in presidential preference polls.

Now, on the spectrum of wrongdoings by Mexican politicians, building an access road on disputed property is about as minor as it gets. Just to give one example, the current governor of Morelos state, a member of President Fox's PAN party, flies around in helicopters belonging to drug cartels; dated the daughter of a key cartel figure; and has been implicated in the drug-smuggling, kidnapping and murder charges filed against one of his top cabinet members. Yet efforts to impeach him from office have been unsuccessful.

In such context, everyone in the world can see the case against Lopez Obrador -- the desafuero by its Spanish legal name -- as a politically motivated effort to eliminate a popular member of an opposition party.

Of course, if you want to view this glass as half full, you might see the judicial-as-political approach as a step in the right direction, especially for the PRI, which in the past simply murdered rival politicans (and it did so even within its own party - check out a couple of guys named Colosio and Ruiz Massieu, both killed as recently as 1994).

Maybe the difference this time is that in the Lopez Obrador case, the PRI appears to following the lead of President Vicente Fox and his conservative PAN party. Left to their own devices, the PRI might just drop 'ol AMLO out of an airplane. The PAN, at least for now, seems to prefer slightly more subtle methods.

Still, the Fox/PAN-at-the-helm-angle leads to a pretty painful irony: when Fox was elected in 2000, ending the PRI's 71-year run of power, he ran on a platform of "change" and promised to lead the nation in a transition to real democracy. Now he's teamed up with his old rivals the PRI to make sure that Mexican voters don't have the opportunity to freely choose Lopez Obrador in a democratic election.

So why are these guys so terrified of Lopez Obrador as a presidential candidate anyway? Here are a couple of possible reasons:

AMLO has advocated greater government control over certain sectors of the economy. Liberalization has made a lot of PAN and PRI bigwigs very rich in recent years.
Many PAN and PRI politicians have some serious skeletons in their closet. They may fear that a President Lopez Obrador would prosecute them for stuff a lot more aggregious than building an access road.
The PAN and PRI higher-ups may have their differences, but they are still part of the same elite ruling class that has dominated Mexico for centuries. The last thing in the world they want to see is a candidate of the people running "their" country.
But what appears to be happening now is that the plan behind the desafuero has really backfired. See, what the PAN/PRI alliance didn't count on is that people are generally in favor of democratic government, and they get very angry when they feel that their democratic rights have been trod upon. They also are not so stupid that they can't see the difference between a political rub-out and the execution of justice. So, not surprisingly, AMLO's popularity has gone up since the desafuero started, and Fox's has gone down. There was a pro-AMLO march here on April 7 and several hundred thousand supporters turned out. There was a second march here last Sunday and an estimated 1.2 million showed up.

It really was a hare-brained scheme to begin with. Lopez Obrador is a master at self-promotion -- all of his public works projects are super high-profile, all of his food and voucher handouts are done in the central square with the full press corps on hand -- and so of course he was going to spin the case to his advantage. And it's not like he was such a sure-thing for the presidency that they had no other choice. Although he had been leading presidential preference polls, AMLO was ahead with only about 35% of the vote, which means 65% of the electorate wasn't yet planning to vote for him. And while Lopez Obrador's handouts have made him a hit with the elderly and the urban poor, many people that I had spoken with -- especially young people -- said they just don't trust the guy.

But now he's playing himself as a martyr and a victim of the power elite and the enemies of democracy, and it's resonating with the people.

And as the situation plays itself out, it sure is taking some interesting twists and turns. For example, here's one clever twist that I have to give the PAN/PRI credit for: Under Mexican law, Lopez Obrador would have to go to jail once he was formally charged. The mayor was all ready to turn that to his advantage as well, talking about running his campaign from behind bars and repeatedly conjuring up comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. But the day that the charges were filed, two PAN senators rushed down and posted Lopez Obrador's bail, and so he couldn't go to jail after all. Touche to you, AMLO!

Disappointed that he couldn't go to prison, AMLO has decided to go back to work. After all, the laws used to prosecute this case are so murky that no one has been able to definitively say that he can't continue being mayor, at least for the time being. So on Monday, the mayor returned to his office amidst swarms of cameras, throngs of followers, and huggable children. Fox's people say that he is breaking more laws by resuming his post, and so maybe they'll send the cops down to arrest him. I'm sure he'd love that.

So keep an eye on this story: it certainly promises to get even more fascinating before it's all over.

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