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In Mexico, politicians split over possible charges against mayor

MEXICO CITY—Mexico's largest political party is split over whether to recommend that popular Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador be stripped of political immunity to face criminal charges that could keep him from the 2006 presidential race.

The split within the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, forced the postponement of the decision until Friday, after a four-member congressional committee, including two PRI members, couldn't agree Tuesday night on whether the leftist mayor violated a court order on March 14, 2001, to stop building an access road to a hospital. The committee initially was expected to reach a decision Wednesday.

Most political observers have expected the committee, where Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, holds only one seat, to act quickly this week. They've been considering the case for 10 months.

But Francisco Frias Castro, one of the two PRI members, called for the postponement because there wasn't enough time to reach "a fair decision in a professional way."

Frias isn't the only PRI member hesitant to move ahead with the case, which many in Mexico believe is intended to force Lopez Obrador from next year's presidential race. Polls show Lopez Obrador consistently beating the expected PRI candidate, Roberto Madrazo, and the expected candidate of Mexico's other major party, Santiago Creel of the National Action Party, or PAN.

Nearly 70 PRI members of Congress have opposed yanking Lopez Obrador's immunity.

"The PRI must not wield its power to destroy an adversary, because that would be a political setback," said one member, Carlos Jimenez, who warned of unrest if Congress' vote is perceived as a political vendetta.

"A very important number of us are absolutely against the desafuero," he said, using the Spanish-language term for removing immunity.

News reports here say Madrazo, thought to favor pulling Lopez Obrador's immunity, has told party congressional leaders that he doesn't want the PRI to split on the Lopez Obrador decision.

In addition, several PAN members are having second thoughts about allowing Lopez Obrador to be criminally charged in a case that revolves around the relatively minor issue of whether the city stopped construction of the road as quickly as it should have.

PAN legislative vice coordinator German Martinez said many are now wondering whether Lopez Obrador, as the city's mayor, should be held responsible for the actions of a construction crew.

"There's a strong current internally that's demanding the issue be viewed with a magnifying glass," he said. "We have to look at the question of hierarchy. Maybe the mayor is not directly responsible."

Still, the drama has kept Mexicans transfixed. The president of the country's stock exchange even has suggested that the case is causing anxiety among investors.

"Let's not forget that financial markets and politics aren't separate issues," said exchange President Guillermo Prieto Trevino. "If investors perceive this issue will affect economic indicators, they can remove their investments."

In his morning news conference Wednesday, the mayor urged the committee to hurry up and vote.

"I hope nothing happens to affect the economy and finances of the nation. Maybe those who are provoking my ouster will reflect, but I doubt it. They're possessed by power," he said.

If the committee splits 2-2 on the issue, the process ends. But if the vote is 3-1 either way, the matter will be referred to the 500-member Congress, where the PRD holds only 95 votes, compared with 222 for the PRI and 151 for the PAN. If lawmakers agree to strip the mayor of immunity, he could be barred from seeking the presidency and even go to jail.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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