September 1, 2006

Mexico leftists silence Fox in election protest

By Miguel Angel Gutierrez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Vicente Fox was
forced to abandon his last state of the nation address to
Congress on Friday after leftist lawmakers alleging election
fraud seized the podium and refused to let him speak.

Shortly before Fox was due to give his speech, dozens of
legislators who support leftist presidential candidate Andres
Manuel Lopez Obrador marched up to the podium, some with
banners calling the president a traitor to democracy.

Fox, who leaves office in December, avoided a more serious
showdown with those who contend Lopez Obrador was robbed of the
election by simply giving a copy of his speech to Congress
officials and quickly returning to his residence.

It was the first time in Mexican history that opposition
legislators have blocked the president's annual address and
marked an escalation of a crisis that has rocked the country
since a bitterly contested July 2 presidential election.

"Faced with the attitude of a group of legislators that
makes it impossible to read the speech I have prepared for this
occasion, I am leaving the building," Fox said in the lobby of
Congress before walking out.

In a televised address to the nation later on Friday, Fox
said the protest that silenced him was "not an affront to me
personally but to the office of the president and the Mexican

In the streets outside Congress, small groups of left-wing
protesters threw rocks and bottles at lines of riot police but
there were no serious clashes.

Lopez Obrador has led supporters in huge street protests in
the last two months and his Party of the Democratic Revolution
had vowed to deny Fox a platform in Congress on Friday.

They accuse the president of complicity in a massive fraud
to give victory to conservative ruling party candidate Felipe
Calderon, his former energy minister. But foreign observers and
Mexico's top electoral court do not agree the election was

Fox was hailed as a democracy hero when he was elected in
2000, ending 71 years of one-party rule, and still enjoys high
popularity ratings as he nears the end of his term.


However, political unrest over the contested election to
replace him may cloud his legacy.

Lopez Obrador's supporters have paralyzed central Mexico
City with protest camps and he has vowed to make Mexico
ungovernable if Calderon's victory is confirmed.

Calderon, who won the vote by just 244,000 votes out of 41
million, is expected to be named president-elect in coming days
after the top electoral court this week rejected fraud claims.

Lopez Obrador railed on Friday against what he says are
Mexico's corrupt institutions, such as the courts.

"To hell with their institutions," he told a rally of
supporters in Mexico City's central Zocalo square. But he
called on them not to march to the Congress building, where
violent clashes had been feared.

Fox, a rancher and former Coca-Cola executive, took a swipe
back at his rival in his televised address.

"Whoever attacks our laws and institutions attacks our
history, attacks Mexico," he said. "Mexico demands harmony, not

Fox's approval rating hit 68 percent, its highest level
since 2001, in a Reforma newspaper poll on Friday. Another poll
in El Universal showed him with a 67 percent rating.

Many Mexicans like Fox's affable style and he is credited
with stabilizing Mexico's economy and opening government to
public scrutiny after decades of authoritarian rule.

But he failed to deliver on promises of rapid economic
growth and millions of new jobs, and antagonized opposition
parties who blocked his reforms in Congress.

"What happened today was the result of his ineptitude,"
said Alejandro Troncoso, a veterinary student who joined the
protests outside Congress on Friday. "Running Coca-Cola is not
the same as running a country."

(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Greg