MEXICO CITY—When he became mayor of one of the world's largest cities, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was coy about his ambitions. He drove an old car, dressed humbly and annoyed reporters who had to attend his daily, punctual 6 a.m. news conferences.
That was more than four years ago. On Thursday, he was the man to beat in the 2006 presidential election, and his left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, no longer seemed likely to be a distant third in Mexico's political races.
Lopez Obrador's transformation was completed Wednesday night, when President Vicente Fox announced the resignation of Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha, the brigadier general who had doggedly pursued Lopez Obrador on criminal charges stemming from a land dispute. The charges themselves were minor, but under Mexican law they would have prevented Lopez Obrador from running for the presidency.
In besting the president, Lopez Obrador also defeated the two other major Mexican political parties, Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose members in Congress had teamed up to strip Lopez Obrador of his immunity from prosecution three weeks ago.
"If Lopez Obrador was the man to beat before this, he's even more powerful now," said Cesar Hernandez, a political scientist with the think tank Investigative Center for Development. "He showed his political muscle, played hardball, bluffed, threatened and controlled his followers from getting violent, something the government was banking on to add more charges."
The mayor, who took a leave of absence from office after he lost his immunity and had taken to holding court in a public park not far from his home, was back in form Thursday at his early morning news conference.
He welcomed the news of Macedo's departure and Fox's pledge that nothing would be done to prevent anyone from appearing on next year's presidential ballot.
But he didn't thank Fox.
"Yesterday's decision is the fruit of the efforts and participation of people in this movement for effective suffrage," he said. "This action without a doubt will contribute to the strengthening of institutions and democracy."
What the action will do for Fox's popularity is unclear. Fox, who in 2000 became the first person to beat the PRI for the presidency in seven decades, can't run again.
During the turmoil surrounding Lopez Obrador, Fox's approval rating dropped from 60 percent to 50 percent, and demonstrators often called him a traitor to democracy—a bitter accusation given that Fox frequently calls the establishment of democracy in a country where one party had ruled essentially unchallenged since the 1930s his No. 1 accomplishment.
"Fox gave great hopes to Mexicans seeking change from the authoritarian PRI," said Hernandez. "But it took him a while to realize he might be remembered as a president who set back democracy."
What brought home that realization, said William & Mary College professor George W. Grayson, a political scientist who's writing a book on the mayor, was Sunday's nonviolent march of 1.2 million people who walked to the capital's main plaza, the Zocalo.
The throngs shouted "Fox, Macedo resign!" and "Obrador, Obrador, you're our president." The government couldn't ignore the massive turnout, said to be the largest in recent Mexican history.
"Macedo was a Keystone Kop. The question is, what took Fox so long?" Grayson said.
What happens next? Fox has promised Macedo's replacement would "exhaustively review the case against the mayor, while seeking to preserve the greatest political harmony in the country."
But most observers think it's unlikely that charges will be filed against the mayor. A Thursday deadline for the government to appeal a judge's ruling throwing out the case last week slipped by with no action.
The assistant attorney general who'd been in charge of the Lopez Obrador investigation, Carlos Vega Memije, also resigned Wednesday.
But one certainty is that Lopez Obrador now has the stature to press his agenda, which he described during the massive march as establishing a country "in which the poor, the weak and the forgotten find protection against economic uncertainties."
Some critics foresee a Lopez Obrador presidency as likely to usher in a period of anti-business government, but Lopez Obrador said "the change we're proposing doesn't mean a return to statism," though, he added, "it also does not mean a submissive acceptance of neo-liberal policies that are ineffective and dehumanizing."
Lopez Obrador noted that he regularly meets with business leaders and that Mexico City has the country's highest rate of foreign investment. "I'm not a populist or a neo-liberal," he said. "I want justice in a country that's gone down the drain after 20 years of economic policies, trade agreements and extreme dependence on the United States."
Lopez Obrador's popularity is due in part to $70-a-month stipends for the elderly and single women that he began paying as mayor. He also founded a university for disadvantaged students, announced zero tolerance on crime, put hidden cameras to nail corrupt police, built a double-decker highway to unclog traffic and got financial support from one of the world's richest men, Carlos Slim, to restore the city's historic downtown.
In one of his most controversial moves, he hired in November 2000 former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as consultant, for a fee of $4.3 million, to help combat crime.
Lopez Obrador left the PRI in 1988 and a year later helped found the PRD along with other PRI defectors who were dismayed by the PRI's failure to prosecute corrupt officials.
Still, his most likely competitor from the PRI for president, Roberto Madrazo, said he was pleased by Wednesday's developments, and promised victory, though most polls show him lagging behind Lopez Obrador by at least 10 percentage points.
"Personally, I'd like to see his name on the ballot. We've beaten him three times already and we'll beat him again," Madrazo said.
In 1988, Lopez Obrador lost to Madrazo in trying to secure the PRI's party nomination to run for governor. He then left the PRI and ran against Madrazo as a PRD candidate, but lost again. In 1994, Madrazo defeated the mayor in the gubernatorial race in Tabasco state, where both were born.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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