Mexican candidate takes fight to the streets

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The early-morning sounds of the world’s second biggest city are as familiar to its almost 20m residents as the beat of their favourite song: articulated lorries hiss and scream, street vendors at traffic lights shout the names of the leading newspapers and bus horns cut through the din with bursts of “Yankee Doodle”.

But along Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city’s main avenues, the cacophony was replaced on Monday by almost total silence, and where impatient drivers normally fight for every centimetre of road a group of women were busy cooking eggs served up with Jalapeño peppers. Tents and tarpaulins straddled the normally busy lanes of traffic and a huddle of men sat wrapped in blankets drinking sweet black coffee from plastic cups.

The makeshift kitchen and collection of tents is just one of 47 camps in the city that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the country’s leftwing presidential candidate, announced on Sunday afternoon as the latest – and until now most provocative – phase of what he calls “the fight to defend democracy”.

Ever since Mr López Obrador, a 52-year-old former Mexico City mayor, narrowly lost the July 2 presidential election to the centre-right Felipe Calderón, he has refused to accept the result and has demanded a full manual recount of the votes.

Mr López Obrador and his Democratic Revolution party (PRD) have submitted evidence to Mexico’s Federal Electoral Tribunal, the highest electoral court, that they claim proves the elections were riddled with inconsistencies and foul play.

The tribunal has until September 6 to pass judgment. But on Sunday, before one of the biggest crowds ever assembled in Mexico, the silver-haired campaigner laid bare his mistrust of the seven magistrates who make up the tribunal.

In Mexico, he said, “those who impart justice, instead of protecting the poor, only serve to legalise the plundering and abuses of the strong; the law that has prevailed has been that of money and power above everything else”.

Guillermo Valdés of GEA, a consultancy in Mexico City, says the PRD’s plan could even escalate in coming days to include actions such as blocking the international airport and, given that the party controls the city government and its security forces, will probably meet with little or no official confrontation. “This is just the beginning,” he says.

But will the strategy work? Manuel Camacho, one of Mr López Obrador’s principal strategists, says blocking the city’s main arteries is the only way to make the tribunal aware of how dangerous it would be not to order a full recount.

“If the tribunal does not order a recount, millions of Mexicans will refuse to accept the result and some of the more radical leaders could take matters into their own hands,” he says. “People are very worked up.”

That view was shared by a group of men sitting on the curb of Paseo de la Reforma on Monday. “We are not going to let them steal the election from us,” said one man with an image of Che Guevara, the revolutionary leader, stencilled on his cheek. “We demand a full recount and we’ll stay here as long as it takes.”

But Jorge Zepeda, a Mexico City-based political analyst, says the latest phase of what Mr López Obrador has branded “peaceful civil resistance” is a big mistake.

In particular, he says, it comes before all the legal channels have been exhausted, which will only reinforce Mr López Obrador’s image in the minds of many Mexicans as a man with scant regard for legal process or institutions. “Either he knows something we don’t in terms of what the magistrates are thinking or he is getting ahead of himself,” says Mr Zepeda.

The most obvious danger is losing the sympathy of people who did not vote for Mr López Obrador but who favour a recount. A poll last week in El Universal newspaper showed that while 52.5 per cent of the population believed Mr Calderón of the ruling National Action party (PAN) won, 48 per cent favour a recount.

Some of those people were already beginning to lose their patience on Monday as they joined the throng of suited businessmen who had swapped brogues for trainers to walk to work.

Even Ricardo Munguía, an office worker who voted for Mr López Obrador, said the latest step in the leftwing candidate’s strategy was one too far. Walking along Rio Mississippi Avenue, he said: “This is the sort of thing that only happens in places like Central America. Enough is enough: there comes a time when you have to admit you lost.”

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