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Calderon prepares for inauguration as election dispute continues

MEXICO CITY—For most of the world, Mexico will inaugurate a president named Felipe Calderon on Friday morning. Congratulations will flow from around the globe. Cabinet members will be sworn in. Mariachi music will play.

It won't change a thing, however, in the bright yellow building at 64 San Luis Potosi St. Inside sits the man who insists that he's the real president of Mexico: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has his own cabinet, his own budget and even his own tricolor presidential sash, which he strapped on more than two weeks ago.

"Office of the legitimate president," his aides say when answering the phone. Never mind that he lost at the ballot box and in the courts.

Welcome to the alternate reality that Lopez Obrador has carved out months after the country's highest electoral court declared that he'd lost the July presidential election by some 230,000 votes, the most closely contested presidential race in Mexico's history.

His most ardent supporters, convinced that the election was stolen from them, seem ready to follow the fiery leftist anywhere. But others say they hardly recognize Lopez Obrador anymore, describing a haunted and lonely man consumed by the passion that he once called the "Achilles' heel" of ambitious politicians from his native state of Tabasco, in Mexico's deep south.

"He has taken on a messianic attitude," said Alejandro Almazan, the author of a recent book on Lopez Obrador's unsuccessful campaign. "I don't know what happened, but he is not the man I used to know."

Is the "legitimate presidency" all a game? A pre-campaign for the 2012 presidential race, as some suggest? Without tapping into Lopez Obrador's thoughts, it's impossible to say. He rarely grants interviews and refused a request this week from McClatchy Newspapers.

But he told the newspaper El Noroeste this week that he's not play-acting.

"I already am the legitimate president of Mexico, proudly so," he said when he was asked whether he'd run again in 2012. "We are going to govern with the participation of the people."

His cabinet "secretary" of political affairs, Jose Agustin Ortiz Pinchette, sounded a more conciliatory note in an interview with McClatchy on Thursday.

"We're not living in an imaginary world," he said. "We know that Calderon is going to establish a de facto government . . . that is a reality."

The headquarters of the "parallel" government, formerly known as the Lopez Obrador campaign office, don't buzz with the excitement and optimism found there last spring, when the former Mexico City mayor seemed unbeatable.

But inside aides are busy answering phones and letters, holding meetings and putting the final touches on a logo for the "legitimate president" that they plan to stamp on T-shirts and buttons that can be sold to help finance their operations.

Muffled chatter at the reception desk signaled the arrival of a box of handbills Thursday morning, less than 24 hours before Calderon was to be sworn in. They advertised a street protest timed to coincide with the inaugural ceremonies.

"The Imposition Will Not Happen," the leaflet declared, referring to plans by militant party members and legislators to make trouble and perhaps even halt the power-transfer ceremony in Mexico's Congress on Friday.

The fireworks began Tuesday, when loyalists in Lopez Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution—the PRD in its Spanish initials—came to blows with members of Calderon's National Action Party, the PAN, in the House of Deputies, where the transfer of power is to take place.

The PRD lawmakers struggled to take over the main dais. But unlike in September, when the leftists stopped outgoing President Vicente Fox from reaching the podium to deliver his final state of the nation address, the PAN lawmakers and security guards stopped the seizure.

The chamber has been the scene of a tense standoff since then, with lawmakers camping out in sleeping bags and ordering carryout tamales, pizza and hamburgers. The PAN rejected suggestions to move the ceremony, raising the specter of anything from a political circus to physical confrontation Friday.

Lopez Obrador's advisers acknowledge that the post-election mess has cost him popularity, and polls show that most Mexicans oppose efforts to stop Calderon's inauguration. Why so many lawmakers remain loyal to Lopez Obrador in spite of the political risks comes as little surprise to those who've followed his career.

"He was always a leader," said Ernesto Benitez, a lifelong friend from tiny Tepetitan, Tabasco. "People say he's messianic, but he never asked for it."

Lopez Obrador lost a fraud-marred election for governor of Tabasco in 1988, but rose to national prominence after he was elected mayor of Mexico City in 2000. He seemed sure to win the presidency until a few weeks before the election, when a barrage of ads charged that he was a hothead and a danger to Mexico.

Both Lopez Obrador and Calderon declared victory after the elections; the court certified Calderon's win in September.

Almazan, whose book is titled "The Victory That Wasn't," said he thought that some ballot fraud and state-sanctioned dirty tricks had cost Lopez Obrador votes. But he blames the loss on Lopez Obrador's ego, the same fuel that's powering his "parallel" government.

"What really cost him the election was his arrogance," Almazan said. He said that Lopez Obrador unwittingly predicted his own demise when he wrote years ago that people from the tropics can't seem to "reconcile passion with reason."

"That's why Tabascan politicians have always tripped when they tried to jump from the regional to the national level," Lopez Obrador wrote.

Ortiz Pinchette, the political adviser, predicts that Lopez Obrador and his movement will rise again. He said the voters who deserted the leftist would come back as soon as they experienced the certain cascade of disappointments under Calderon.

"This is not a project of short duration," he said. "It will take months, or a year. Or a little more."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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