- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2006

MEXICO CITY — Opposition lawmakers seized the Mexican Congress’ podium last night, preventing outgoing President Vicente Fox from giving his final state-of-the-nation address and stoking an already inflamed electoral crisis.

More than 100 members of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party of presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stormed the podium shortly before Mr. Fox was scheduled to address the legislature, refusing to budge as they chanted and waved flags.

With Mexico soaked in election-fueled tension, many worried that Mr. Fox’s speech could spark violence, both from legislators and supporters of Mr. Lopez Obrador, who had massed in the Mexican capital.

Hours before the scheduled address, however, Mr. Lopez Obrador, who lost by less than one percentage point to conservative Felipe Calderon, canceled a march to the Congress aimed at preventing Mr. Fox from entering the building. Mr. Lopez Obrador has claimed massive fraud in the election and has led a raucous two-month protest.

More than 6,000 riot police with steel fences and attack dogs guarded the Congress’ building yesterday and streets and subway stations surrounding the it were closed. Residents had to show identification before being allowed into their neighborhoods.

Although Mr. Fox swept into power six years ago carrying the lofty expectations of a man many hoped would save Mexico’s democracy, the situation is far different as he prepares to leave office in three months.

It nearly took a military operation to insert Mr. Fox into the building that serves as the quarters of the House of Representatives, where he was told it wasn’t safe to enter the chamber to give his speech. The dejected-looking president instead handed officials a written copy of his speech and returned to his waiting fleet of sport utility vehicles. He was scheduled to read the report on national television later in the night.

This year’s address took on added importance for Mr. Fox, analysts say, because it was his last as president and a chance to stake out his legacy.

Mr. Lopez Obrador and his supporters have called the president a “traitor to democracy” and accuse him of using his office to propel Mr. Calderon, his former energy secretary, into the presidency.

Tensions in Mexico may be heightened further now that an electoral court is poised to officially name Mr. Calderon president. The court must declare a winner by Wednesday, but most expect that to be a formality after judges rejected Mr. Lopez Obrador’s accusations of massive fraud earlier in the week.

As surreal as the scene inside the Mexican Congress was, it wasn’t unexpected.

Unlike in the United States, where opposition during a State of the Union address often takes the form of a well-timed smirk or a frown, opposition lawmakers in Mexico have a growing tradition of interrupting the speeches with catcalls and hoisting signs with angry messages.

One year, a lawmaker mooned Mr. Fox. But this was the first time a president wasn’t allowed inside to deliver his report.

In a written version of the speech handed out to the press before the fracas, Mr. Fox defended his democratic credentials and took some shots at Mr. Lopez Obrador without naming him.

“Nowadays, political and social conflicts are processed within institutions,” he said.

“Whoever attacks our laws and institutions also attacks our history and Mexico. No one can say that he supports the people when he attacks them. A divided society is a weak society, a society that is incapable of achieving its goals or taking care of its neediest members.”

Mr. Fox’s opponents say the events of the last year have erased the good will he earned by defeating the Institutional Revolutionary Party after 71 years of uninterrupted rule.

“His legacy is a divided country,” columnist Juan Villoro wrote for the Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma yesterday.

Despite the election tumult and daily pummeling he receives in the Mexican press, Mr. Fox’s popularity among the people is higher than it has been in years. According to polls, his popularity rating — 68 percent — is higher than it was before the disputed election.

Mr. Lopez Obrador’s popularity has plummeted in recent weeks, especially after he refused to recognize the results of the electoral court and threatened to set up a shadow government.

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