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Felipe Calderon takes the oath of office in Mexico

MEXICO CITY—Conservative Felipe Calderon walked into a violence-racked Mexican Congress on Friday and hurriedly took his oath of office, marking a chaotic finale to the closest and most bitterly contested presidential race in the country's history.

Staying in the tense chamber just long enough to slap on his presidential sash and sing the national anthem, Calderon broke with inaugural tradition and left for safer ground, the National Auditorium, to deliver his first televised speech as the president of Mexico.

"I'm aware of the complexity of the circumstances in which I am assuming the presidency," said Calderon, still seen by many on the left as a corrupt usurper. "But I'm used to confronting and overcoming all obstacles."

Less than two hours before Calderon arrived at the House of Deputies, punches flew and shoving matches broke out between his conservative allies and the liberal opposition. Loyal to fiery populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the militant leftists were trying to prevent Calderon from being sworn in.

Foreign dignitaries, including former President George H.W. Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Prince Felipe of Spain, watched the ceremonial mayhem from the galleries above.

"Espurio! Espurio!" the leftists yelled at Calderon from the House floor, signaling their charge that the 44-year-old conservative is a "spurious" pretender who stole the election with stuffed ballots and high-tech fraud.

"Mexico! Mexico! Felipe! Felipe!" responded the ruling conservatives.

After coming through the one entrance not blocked by protesting lawmakers, Calderon seemed to appear out of nowhere. Determined but often grim-faced, he quickly extended his hand forward in a stiff salute and, ignoring the shouts below, loudly barked out his oath of office. House leader Jorge Zermeno then handed over the tri-color sash, and Calderon, standing next to outgoing President Vicente Fox, fixed it diagonally across his chest.

If there was any moment of unity, it came when the band fired up a lively rendition of the national anthem. The competing cries of "Fraud!" and "Mexico!" resumed when the music stopped. Calderon and Fox were gone in minutes.

Leaving nothing to chance, the outgoing and incoming leaders—both members of the conservative National Action Party (PAN)—arranged for an unprecedented, early transfer of power in a midnight ceremony that was broadcast on national television. Calderon also swore in key cabinet members.

In his televised address, Calderon extended the olive branch to his adversaries but also promised to act swiftly and confidently to enact key reforms aimed at cracking down on crime and drug trafficking, alleviating rampant poverty and reviving anemic job growth.

"I'm always ready to talk, but I won't wait for dialogue before going to work," he said. "The people are ready for action."

Calderon also promised that in his first week he would cut his own salary and those of his top bureaucrats, a nod to criticism during the campaign that the political elite go into government service to enrich themselves.

He also said he wants to reduce immigration, in part by attracting foreign investment.

"Instead of our labor force leaving to invest in the United States, I want the investment to come here where are laborers are, so that we don't have to keep splitting up our families and communities," Calderon said.

Happy talk aside, the clashes inside Congress, and the war zone-like security measures outside it, underscored the raw feelings and volatility left over from the closest presidential election in Mexico's history. Calderon won by less than 1 percentage point, or about 230,000 out of more than 40 million votes cast, according to a count certified in September by the Mexican Electoral Tribunal.

The high court said it found irregularities but dismissed claims of ballot box fraud in the July 2 election. The losing candidate, Lopez Obrador, said the electoral institutions could all "go to hell," and he hasn't moderated his views one bit.

Before leading a street protest Friday, Lopez Obrador, who calls himself Mexico's "legitimate president," said he would continue to oppose Calderon as the head of his unrecognized, parallel government.

"I don't have to respect a thief, and I will always call him that," Lopez Obrador said.

Members of Lopez Obrador's left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD in its Spanish acronym, had hoped to prevent Calderon from assuming the presidency by blocking the oath-taking in Congress, a procedure called for in Mexico's constitution.

A bitter fight for control of the central podium in Congress on Tuesday left the liberal PRD and conservative National Action Party (PAN) in an uneasy stalemate. It turned the House chamber into a gilded campground where lawmakers slept in sleeping bags and ordered carry-out tamales as they fought for every inch of space around the dais.

"It's lamentable to encounter these kinds of political tactics. It's incredible," said Ricardo Rodriguez, a PAN congressman from the state of Jalisco who spent three nights in the chamber.

PRD members acknowledge that they'd planned to take over the podium as they did in September, when they successfully prevented then-President Fox from reaching the crescent-shaped dais to deliver his final state of the nation address.

This time, PAN members already had begun to occupy the podium on Tuesday, preventing the PRD from gaining access to the strategically placed top rung, complained PRD Congressman Cuauhtemoc Sandoval Ramirez.

They're "the ones who always accused us of being the violent party, the party that seizes podiums," said Sandoval, who spent three days sleeping on the House floor. "Now they are the ones who did it."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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