The Inauguration Fist Fight Part Two
 
 

Chaos reigns on Calderon's day

 

 

MEXICO CITY--Felipe Calderon, a diminutive but determined 44-year-old conservative, was inaugurated Friday as president of a deeply divided Mexico amid fisticuffs between rival lawmakers and raucous protests in the country's "legislative palace."

Leaders of the largest opposition party in Congress, the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, say Calderon's election was illegitimate, and they battled conservative congressional deputies and senators on the floor most of the week. But the leftists failed in their attempt to keep legislators out of the chambers to prevent a quorum for the joint session of Congress.

Friday morning, after leftist lawmakers barricaded most of the doors with chairs in a last-ditch attempt to keep the president-elect out, Calderon emerged through a back entrance. He squeezed into a phalanx of bodyguards and loyalist legislators, and took the oath of office.

With European princes, Latin American leaders, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other dignitaries looking on from two balconies, Calderon raised his hand and sometimes shouted as he recited the 62-word oath amid a chorus of derisive whistles.

The swearing-in ceremony lasted less than two minutes.

"Felipe will fall! Felipe will fall!" leftist legislators chanted.

"Yes we did it! Yes we did it!" the legislators of Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, shouted as Calderon exited.

In a speech later before a friendly audience of invited dignitaries and political leaders at the city's National Auditorium, Calderon said he would reach out to his rivals and try to heal the wounds of a long and bitter fight over the election.

"It's obvious that Mexico is living moments of tension between its leading political movements," Calderon said. "I am aware of the seriousness of our differences, and I assume full responsibility to resolve them and reunify Mexico."

Calderon's rival, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, had declared himself Mexico's legitimate president in his own swearing-in ceremony Nov. 20 before 100,000 people in this city's central square, the Zocalo.

On Friday, a much smaller crowd came to the Zocalo to hear Lopez Obrador speak.

"We are not rebels without a cause," Lopez Obrador said. "People forget that they stole the election from us. People forget that a neofascist oligarchy blocked our path. That minority is the one responsible for the political crisis in this country."

Sen. Rosario Ibarra of Lopez Obrador's PRD drew laughter from the crowd when she described how Calderon had entered the legislative palace.

"That spurious man had to take the stage with an escort of PAN members and guarded by the presidential guard," Ibarra said. "He came in through the back door and left through the back door."

"Like a dog!" people in the crowd shouted back.

Lopez Obrador had suggested his followers would stage a mass march on the legislative palace, which was sealed off with steel barriers and protected by navy commandos and police. Despite the heated rhetoric, the march never reached Congress and ended peacefully.

The day's events marked the end of a battle that began just hours after the polls closed July 2, with both Calderon and Lopez Obrador declaring victory.

The often nasty campaign had laid bare Mexico's profound economic and regional divisions. Lopez Obrador won among the poor and in southern Mexico. Calderon was favored in northern Mexico and among its affluent and middle class.

After partial recounts and legal battles that stretched into September, Mexico's highest electoral court declared Calderon the winner by less than 1 percentage point. Calderon's come-from-behind victory was the closest in the nation's history.

The ambivalence many Mexicans feel toward Calderon's presidency was evident in a poll released Friday by the newspaper El Universal. Seven in 10 respondents said they opposed efforts to block the inauguration, although 42% said they believed Calderon's victory was fraudulent.

The political battle took on new life as the inauguration approached.

Conservative and leftist legislators Tuesday began to fight over the dais where Calderon would take the oath. Part wrestling match, part sit-in, the struggle endured for three days and ended with the conservatives in control of the better part of the stage.

Lawmakers on both sides were protected from arrest by the legal immunity granted to legislators here, which also prevented police from entering the chambers to restore order.

On Friday morning, while leftist members used heavy chairs to barricade the entrances, conservative lawmakers built a barrier on the dais with other chairs to protect the back door.

"What we are doing is defending the institutions of democracy," said Congressman Luis Xavier Maawad of the PAN.

If Calderon had failed to take the oath in Congress as mandated by a century of tradition and the Mexican Constitution, his tenure could have faced legal challenges, analysts said.

"It was his obligation to be here, and it was ours too," Sen. Santiago Creel of the PAN told reporters after the inauguration -- not long after the senator had narrowly avoided being bowled over by a charge of leftist legislators. "This is our house. And no one wants violence in their house."

Calderon's defiant appearance on the dais was in sharp contrast with the attitude of his predecessor, Vicente Fox, during his final months in office. In September, Fox backed down in the face of protests by Lopez Obrador supporters, who prevented him from giving his last state of the union address before Congress and his traditional "shout of independence" in the Zocalo.

Earlier in the day, the threats of protest inside and outside Congress caused part of the transfer-of-power ritual to be held in private for the first time. In the presidential residence Los Pinos, Fox handed over a ceremonial flag and sash to the new president in an awkward, apparently improvised televised scene just after midnight.

After the inauguration, leftist legislators said the PANcontrolled congressional leadership had trampled the rules to have Calderon inaugurated.

"There is no quorum here," said Congressman Raymundo Cardenas of the PRD. "They made up the quorum. They never called the roll. This is a complete farce."

Calderon will face many challenges, including a dissident movement in the southern state of Oaxaca and drug cartels that appear to operate with impunity.

In his speech at the National Auditorium, Calderon promised to crack down on crime and address the country's rampant poverty. And he embraced a theme of the Lopez Obrador campaign, saying he would move to cut the salaries of top bureaucrats.

"I know that we have to find real solutions to the inequality among Mexicans, and especially the inequality between north and south, between the city and the countryside, and between those who are Indians and those who are not," he said.

In handling those problems, Calderon may be helped by the scenes of his first day, analysts said.

Taking the stage Friday was "an act of political symbolism that could end up defining his presidency on the first day of his term," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's the difference between a president who is going to be seen as politically strong or politically frail from Day One."