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Fox, Mexico City mayor agree to meeting on criminal charges

MEXICO CITY—Mexican President Vicente Fox and his nemesis, Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, agreed Wednesday to meet to discuss criminal charges pending against the mayor.

But it wasn't immediately clear whether a meeting would defuse the political crisis that has enveloped this country since Congress lifted the mayor's immunity from prosecution three weeks ago.

Fox scheduled a nationwide television address for Wednesday night, and staff members said he would offer some kind of concession in hope of ending the political impasse.

Analysts said Fox's decision to meet with Lopez Obrador is a recognition that Lopez Obrador is holding the political high ground in the struggle prompted by the determination that Fox's attorney general has shown to charge Lopez Obrador with criminal contempt of court in a minor land dispute.

More than 1.2 million people marched Sunday in a silent protest of Congress' April 7 decision to strip Lopez Obrador of his immunity from prosecution, and polls consistently show most Mexicans believe the charges are a way to keep Lopez Obrador from running for president next year. Polls also show that Lopez Obrador is the leading candidate to replace Fox, who can't run for re-election.

No date for the meeting has been announced. "There has to be political solution. The nation, from the poor to the elite, is taking too much political heat to continue with this soap opera," said Eric Fernandez, a political scientist professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana.

Meanwhile, Mexican Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha faces a deadline Thursday to refile charges against the mayor. Charges were filed last week, but a judge declined to accept the case, saying it had been improperly drawn.

The judge, in an unusual middle-of-the-night ruling, noted that two members of the president's political party had posted bail for Lopez Obrador before the case was actually presented, raising the question of whether politics, and not the law, was the real issue. The judge also noted the attorney general didn't ask for Lopez Obrador to be jailed.

The rejection was a major embarrassment for the government, which has been studying the case against the mayor for months.

Prosecutors can refile the charges with a different judge, ask for an arrest warrant or appeal the judge's decision to dismiss the case. Another scenario that would signal a truce would be to not file charges at all, or drop the case.

The agreement for a Fox-Lopez Obrador meeting came after a week of acrimonious comments from the mayor, the president and their supporters.

On Tuesday, Fox told an audience in southern Oaxaca state that the country had to "remove foolish populists" who generate more poverty by opposing free-market policies—a reference to Lopez Obrador, whose left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, is anathema to Fox's conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

For his part, Lopez Obrador has demanded an apology from the president. A Lopez Obrador spokesman earlier in the week demanded that the president's staff stop referring to Lopez Obrador as "Mr. Lopez," and use his political title and full name when mentioning him.

In his letter requesting a meeting with Fox, the mayor said: "We need an agreement to adhere to democracy, the best method to solve differences. We have to allow citizens to freely elect their leaders, to choose policies they think are best for Mexicans, who, after all, are adults and capable of deciding."

Most analysts agree Fox miscalculated the popularity and political ability of the mayor, a business administrator and political scientist who's credited with improving the living standards of the capital's 18 million people.

"They really stepped on it bad. This is not a legal case. It's 99.9 percent a political issue because of the mayor's strength," said George W. Grayson, a political scientist at the College of William & Mary who's writing a book on the mayor. "They have to find a way find a way to make certain he's on the ballot. Otherwise, they risk a year of turbulence, instability, lack of investment and economic growth."

Grayson said the case has turned the mayor from a popular national leader into an "international martyr."

"There's too much heat to continue with this soap opera," said Grayson. "Nothing like this has happened in recent Mexican history."

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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Obrador, Vicente Fox

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