August 4, 2006

Street favorite stage for Mexican vote challenger

By Lorraine Orlandi

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican leftist Andres Manuel Lopez
Obrador feels right at home camping among throngs of fans in
the shadow of the National Palace, wrapped in adoration from
the poor and his own indignation.

A month after losing a presidential election he says was
stolen from him, Lopez Obrador has brought his quest for power
back to the streets, the stage he seems to love best, using a
strategy of civil resistance that has served him well before.

Thousands of his backers have for days occupied the main
boulevard through Mexico City's commercial district and into
its historic heart, snarling traffic across large swathes of
the capital and shuttering many businesses.

He strides among them daily, smiling as he is mobbed and
jostled and painting himself as a savior of democracy.

"We must safeguard democracy. We cannot live in a country
where a corrupt minority decides who governs," he told frenzied
backers this week.

They screamed back, "You are not alone!"

While Lopez Obrador commands deep loyalty from followers,
critics say the protests show him at his worst, a rabble rouser
who would be a populist, divisive president rather than a
statesman able to unite the country and cut deals with his

The former Mexico City mayor and Indian rights activist
says massive fraud gave victory to conservative ruling party
contender Felipe Calderon in the July 2 election. He is
demanding that Mexico's electoral court order a full recount.

His fiery rhetoric springs from a heartfelt belief that his
mission is to lead Mexico, says George Grayson at Virginia's
College of William and Mary, author of a book on the leftist.

"He is a messiah and the flock has gathered around him,"
Grayson said. "Lopez Obrador doesn't just represent the masses,
he incarnates their struggle. He feels their pain."

At a rally on Sunday, Lopez Obrador surprised supporters
from around the country, calling on them to stay and camp out
with him in the vast Zocalo square and on Reforma boulevard.

A huge network of tents, tarps, gas stoves and sound
systems sprouted overnight, less a protest than a block party
in spots, with mariachi bands and souvenir vendors.

Critics say the elaborate production came at taxpayers'
expense, funded by the capital city government his party


Lopez Obrador's aides deny public funding was involved and
say protesters receive no stipends, as some have charged.

His Party of the Democratic Revolution and other political
and civic groups handled the logistics, they say. Protesters
say they stayed because they believe in Lopez Obrador.

"This comes from a belief in all the hope he offered, for
social justice, for aid to the elderly," said Jose Luis
Barbosa, a party leader from Guanajuato state. "Andres
personifies this project ... it helps us endure."

Rivals accuse Lopez Obrador, 52, of threatening rather than
protecting a fragile democracy. Even believers like Barbosa
admit his tactics are alienating some party faithful.

If history is a lesson, the protests could raise Lopez
Obrador's political capital whether he takes office or not.

In 1994, he made his name in politics with dramatic marches
over alleged fraud when he lost a governor's race in Tabasco
state, walking 560 miles to Mexico City.

Last year, he galvanized a public sense of moral outrage
and drew hundreds of thousands of protesters to the Zocalo,
forcing President Vicente Fox to drop minor criminal charges
against him that could have eliminated him from the
presidential race.

The flap helped solidify Lopez Obrador's political base.
"You are not alone" was his backers' mantra then, as now.