MEXICO CITY—Fistfights and shoving matches broke out in the Mexican Congress Tuesday after leftist lawmakers, hoping to block the inauguration of conservative President-elect Felipe Calderon, stormed the podium and tried to seize control of the chamber.
Conservatives, surrounded by security guards, pushed back the protesting lawmakers and vowed to keep order until they formally bestow the presidential sash on Calderon in a ceremony in the Chamber of Deputies this Friday.
The fisticuffs underscore the deep well of bitterness that remains after the closest and most hotly contested presidential race in modern Mexican history and highlight the possibility that Friday's ceremony will be marred by violence.
Members of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, claim Calderon, a member of the National Action Party, or PAN, stole the July election.
"We're not going to allow this inauguration to happen," said Roberto Lopez, a PRD spokesman. "Felipe Calderon will not govern a single day in this country."
Calderon's transition office declined comment. Calls placed to the PAN headquarters weren't returned.
But Ruben Aguilar, a spokesman for outgoing President Vicente Fox, said Calderon will take over on Friday no matter what happens in Congress.
"There is an institutional mechanism" for it, he said. "After the first second on the first day of December of this year, we will have a president who was elected by the majority of the citizens of this country."
Though PRD militants had made no secret of their plans to seize the podium to prevent Calderon's inauguration, the clashes inside the chamber were sudden and unexpected. Both sides blamed each other for inflaming tensions, and neither had abandoned their positions within the chamber as night fell.
In September, PRD militants seized the podium and forced Fox to deliver his final state of the nation address on television.
Calderon won the July elections by less than one percentage point over populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. But the charismatic leftist claimed widespread fraud and never conceded, even after the nation's highest electoral court pronounced Calderon the victor in September. For weeks his followers camped out in downtown Mexico City, snarling traffic and shuttering shops.
Last week, Lopez Obrador declared himself the "legitimate president" of Mexico, strapped on his own presidential sash and began making plans for a "parallel" government. His supporters are planning a massive protest in Mexico City's central square, or Zocalo, to coincide with the inauguration on Friday.
Though Tuesday's clashes signal volatile times ahead, the increasingly bizarre protests have taken their toll on Lopez Obrador and his party. Polls taken weeks after the election show that Calderon would now trounce Lopez Obrador. Likewise, a poll in El Universal newspaper this week showed 64 percent of those surveyed opposed PRD moves to seize the chamber.
Calderon has promised to reach out to those who didn't support him. But his critics on the left say his Cabinet picks suggest otherwise. On Tuesday he announced that former Jalisco Gov. Francisco Ramirez Acuna, criticized for his hard-line approach in dealing with street protests, would be his new interior secretary, handling domestic security matters.
The U.S. Embassy said that former President George Bush, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez would travel to Mexico to attend the inauguration.
What they'll find when they get here is anybody's guess. Tuesday's trouble started around lunchtime, as rumors swept the chamber that PRD supporters would try to seize the chamber. PAN leaders, who have the largest bloc of votes and control the gavel, began assembling near the dais, along with a coterie of guards.
When PRD members began pushing and shoving toward the crescent-shaped stage, they clashed with a human wall of conservative lawmakers.
Jorge Zermeno, the PAN leader who presides over the chamber, ordered the rebel legislators to stand down and asked a throng of reporters and cameramen to leave the chamber. He then called a recess, but lawmakers stayed in the chamber, hurling insults at each other.
A second clash broke out at about 5 p.m., but each side held its ground.
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map