July 31, 2006

Mexico leftists paralyze capital in vote protest

By Kieran Murray and Chris Aspin

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Thousands of leftist protesters
paralyzed the Mexican capital's business district on Monday to
demand a vote recount in a presidential election they say was
stolen from their candidate.

Launching a campaign of civil disobedience that raises the
stakes in Mexico's political crisis, supporters of Andres
Manuel Lopez Obrador seized control overnight of a six-mile
(10-km) stretch of the capital's elegant Reforma boulevard and
the imposing Zocalo square.

The protest caused chaos on Monday, with huge traffic jams
snarling main streets in an already congested city.

Office workers running late for work hurried along Reforma,
a wide, tree-lined avenue that is home to the U.S. embassy,
many luxury hotels and headquarters of major corporations.

"I had to cancel a breakfast where I was going to close a
contract for one million pesos (about $92,000). Do you think
I'm happy, or that I support these bastards?" said Enrique
Salas, an insurance broker.

A bank security guard prevented by the protests from
traveling in an armored car walked along Reforma with a sack of
money, flanked by two colleagues with shotguns.

European Union observers said they found no evidence of
fraud at the election, won narrowly by conservative ruling
party candidate Felipe Calderon. But Mexico has a long history
of vote cheating and many leftists are deeply suspicious of the
electoral system.

The fight has split Mexico just six years after President
Vicente Fox took power, ending seven decades of rule by an
often corrupt party.

Leftists set up tents and huge tarpaulin covers in the
middle of Reforma and in the Zocalo square, once the center of
the Aztec world and now the heart of modern Mexico.


Mexico's peso currency dropped 0.82 percent to 10.9485 to
the dollar on Monday due to nerves that the vote conflict may
spin out of control.

Critics said the protests confirmed their fears that Lopez
Obrador, a former Indian welfare officer, is a rabble rouser
and has little in common with moderate leftist leaders like
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Lopez Obrador aides apologized to those who do not back his
cause but said the campaign to overturn the July 2 election he
narrowly lost to Calderon would save Mexico's young democracy.

"The struggle for the country, the struggle for democracy
... has a greater priority than the inconvenience caused
unfortunately by this civil resistance," said the leftist's
campaign manager Jesus Ortega.

Calderon's margin of victory was just 244,000 votes, or
less than 0.6 percentage points, and Lopez Obrador says results
from more than half of polling stations were tampered with.

"We want everything clarified. So much injustice is not
possible. We are sure we won," said Alicia Sanchez, 50, who
traveled to the capital from the central city of Tlaxcala.

Like many others, she spent a chilly night on Sunday under
an awning in the Zocalo.

An Indian shaman who normally performs for tourists gave
out healing crystals and carnations to leftists at the square.

The election battle is now with Mexico's highest electoral
court, and Lopez Obrador is trying to push it into ordering a
full recount in the coming weeks, while Calderon insists there
was no fraud.

Local police could break up the protests. But that is
unlikely as the city and its police force are run by Lopez
Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution. He was mayor
until he stepped down last year to run for president.

The leftist led a demonstration of several hundred thousand
people on Sunday and stayed in the Zocalo all night.

The seven judges have to decide whether to reopen some or
all of the ballot boxes by August 31. That means Lopez
Obrador's occupation of the capital could last for weeks.

Polls show that while slightly more than half the country
thinks Calderon won cleanly, more than a third believe there
was fraud and about half want a recount.

(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer)