MEXICO CITY – In a move that could ignite a political firestorm, the Congress stripped Mexico City’s leftist mayor of his immunity from prosecution Thursday, possibly eliminating the leading contender from the 2006 presidential race.
Many Mexicans saw the vote, similar to an impeachment action by the U.S. Congress, as an underhanded political maneuver to eliminate populist Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from running for the presidency. President Vicente Fox insisted prosecuting the mayor is essential to Mexican rule of law.
Earlier in the day, Lopez Obrador had formally announced he would seek the Democratic Revolutionary Party’s nomination for president in next year’s election.
An estimated 400,000 Lopez Obrador supporters, many of whom came from far away states to support the embattled mayor, massed in Mexico City’s main square for the announcement and vote.
The charismatic Lopez Obrador has built a strong following in the capital based on his social programs, including pensions for the elderly, free school supplies and ambitious public works programs. Like many other current Latin American leaders, he has been a vocal critic of globalization, saying the benefits of free trade were oversold.
But he also faces prosecution in federal court for ignoring a 2001 court order to halt city construction of a hospital access road over a disputed plot of ground less than 60 yards long. Although it is not clear that Lopez Obrador ever knew of the court order won by a private landowner to halt public construction on the land, it is he who has been targeted by federal prosecutors. The seemingly innocuous infraction now threatens to derail his career.
Until Thursday, the federal attorney general could not bring a case against him because, like other high-level elected officials, the mayor enjoyed immunity from prosecution.
Now, just 15 months before the national election, the congressional vote of 360-127 to strip him of his legal shield, opens the way for the Fox government to bring a felony charge of abuse of authority against Lopez Obrador.
That would disqualify him as a presidential candidate if the case is not resolved by next Jan. 15, the deadline for candidates to register.