Mexico's new president takes office

Shouting oath, Calderon is sworn in despite fisticuffs, barricades erected by leftists

December 02, 2006|By Hector Tobar | Hector Tobar,Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY -- Felipe Calderon, a diminutive but determined 44-year-old conservative, was inaugurated yesterday 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 so that the joint session of Congress would lack a quorum.

Yesterday morning, with leftist congressmen using chairs to barricade most of the doors in a last-ditch attempt to keep the president-elect out, Calderon emerged from a back entrance. He squeezed into a phalanx of his bodyguards and loyalist legislators and defiantly took the oath of office.

With European princes, Latin American leaders, former 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 yesterday before a friendly audience of invited dignitaries and political leaders at this 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 defeated 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.

Yesterday, 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 neo-fascist 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 the manner in which 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 that his followers would stage a mass march on the Legislative Palace, which was sealed off with steel barriers and protected by police and squads of Navy commandos. Despite the heated rhetoric, the march never reached Congress and ended peacefully.

The day's events marked the end of an exhausting 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 a percentage point. Calderon's come-from-behind victory was the closest in the nation's history.

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

The political battle took new life as the inaugural approached. On Tuesday, conservative and leftist legislators began to fight over the dais where Calderon would take the oath. Part wrestling match, part sit-in, the struggle endured for three days, ending with conservatives in control of the better part of the stage.

Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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