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Mexican Democracy 1 El Presidente 0

Jennifer Whitney May 11

MEXICO CITY — New developments in Mexico leave the country poised to join Latin America’s shift to the left. The federal government announced on May 4 that it would cease its attempt to prosecute Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist mayor of Mexico City, clearing the way for his presidential bid next year. A week earlier, President Vicente Fox sacked Attorney General Rafael Macedo, who was perceived as leading the charge against the mayor. With Macedo pegged as the fall guy, Fox proposed new legislation that would radically overhaul the criminal justice system, affecting López Obrador and almost half of the nearly 200,000 Mexicans currently incarcerated. Additionally, Congress has passed a law allowing Mexican nationals living abroad to vote.

The complete reversal in policy came less than two weeks after 1.2 million people responded to López Obrador’s call for a peaceful march in the capital. Some marchers are sworn opponents of López Obrador, yet felt it necessary to support a fair electoral process. Walking silently, wearing white masks over their faces, they carried signs calling for democracy. Many view the minor criminal charges against the presidential frontrunner as being less about justice and more about eliminating him from the race.

Days after the march, Fox, who for months has engaged in a war of words with López Obrador, appeared to have second thoughts. “My government will not prevent anyone from taking part in the next federal election,” he said in an address to the nation. The Fox administration seems surprised by the steady growth of support for the mayor, whose sweeping reforms and daily press conferences have him leading in the polls by a wide majority, and still climbing. “He seems unbeatable at this point,” said political analyst Federico Estevez after last week’s announcement.

Fox is associated with a breakthrough in the struggle toward greater democracy, since his National Action Party (PAN) electoral victory in 2000 ended the 71-year reign of the former ruling party. His maneuverings against the mayor, which included allegedly ordering the directors of the nation’s largest television stations to supress coverage of López Obrador, led many to question his motives. Eliminating a candidate for what are widely considered to be political motives would tarnish his pro-democracy legacy.

It remains to be seen what will happen with the proposed law, which would grant rights to all persons accused of a crime. Currently, the Mexican judicial system treats suspects as guilty until proven innocent, holding many in jail until legal proceedings conclude. Bail is denied regularly, or is prohibitively expensive. Since there is no right to a speedy trial, innocent people and petty criminals can spend over a year in jail before a verdict. It is this anomaly that would have kept López Obrador out of the presidential race – one cannot run for office while under investigation for a crime.

According to the International Center for Prison Studies, 43 percent of Mexico’s prison population awaits trial. As activist and musician Roco put it, “If this law passes it would be almost revolutionary – imagine – an exodus of people from the jails.” Such an exodus would surely only add to the momentum behind López Obrador’s sprint toward the presidency.