Mexico's fragile democracy

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 6:47 PM EDT

For all the Bush administration's high-minded talk of democracy, there's been a conspicuous silence over the backsliding going on down in Mexico. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist mayor of Mexico City and popular frontrunner in the upcoming presidential race, is facing possible impeachment. Mexico's House of Deputies will rule this Thursday on whether or not to strip Obrador of immunity from prosecution. The crime? Obrador has been accused of taking too long to obey "a judicial order to halt construction of an access road to a hospital." It's a small legal technicality that, according to some polls, 80 percent of Mexicans are in favor of dismissing.

The popular perception is that the two main political parties in Mexico—President Vicente Fox's center-right National Action Party (PAN) and former centrist ruling party Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—are teaming up to get rid of Obrador whose party, the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), is considered a threat in the coming election. And what better way to get rid of the opposition than to take away his legitimacy to run?

But Mexicans throughout the country have rallied around Obrador. Thousands have gathered in Mexico City to protest Congress' decision to send the impeachment matter to the Chamber of Deputies. This Thursday, even more protesters are expected to turn out for the Chamber's decision. In fact, activists for the Obrador's PRD have planned demonstrations in every state capital in the country. Ironically, by trying to disenfranchise Obrador, the two ruling parties have succeeded in doing exactly the opposite: support for Obrador has skyrocketed. As one economist writes:

If [the Fox government] fails to bar Lopez Obrador from running by employing a frivolous technicality over a trivial offense, it will have generated more publicity for the mayor than he could have dreamed possible—not to mention a sympathy vote. If it succeeds, the likely result will be more political instability, uncertainty, and disillusionment among voters than would occur in any of the scenarios advanced by the mayor's detractors. It will infuriate voters if legal maneuvering disqualifies the man they want to support.

The American media has paid scant attention to the growing political upheaval in Mexico. In fact, the few articles that are available online have been written up by financial publications. Investors are biting their nails over both the potential for political instability (some analysts have compared the situation to recent uprisings in Lebanon, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan) and Obrador's leftist stances.

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