August 13, 2002

Mexico City mayor is 'Daddy Government'

'More rooted in the socio-economic reality'

MEXICO CITY, Mexico (AP) --Reveling in his role as a standup populist who
cracks dry one-liners at his daily 6:30 a.m. news conferences, Mexico City's mayor
is riding high as one of the most visible early contenders to succeed President
Vicente Fox in 2006 elections.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador appears to enjoy playing what is known here as
"Daddy Government," handing out everything from free school supplies and circus
tickets to advice on how to smile. What he doesn't enjoy, critics say, are the niceties
of law, democracy and dealing with opposition.

On Tuesday, Lopez Obrador sent police down into the city's tunnels to crush a
threatened strike by subway workers. The mayor, of the left-leaning Democratic
Revolution Party, brushed off comparisons between the subway workers'
movement and the violent blockades of government oil wells he led as a young
political activist in the 1990s.

"That was different," he said. "We were defending the national interest. These
people are criminals."

Earlier, he rejected an agreement with union leaders. He said they wanted to
negotiate "with a squeeze of the hand, when we perhaps should be squeezing some
other part" of their anatomy.

Lopez Obrador is no stranger to contradictions. He rails against the strikers -- "no
one has the right to block the city's transportation" -- but allows leftist protesters to
block the city's main boulevards for hours each week. He praised a
machete-wielding group of protesters who wounded two city policemen for "their
restraint and good judgment."

Focuses on what people want

While he may be polarizing the western hemisphere's largest city, no one has ever
accused Lopez Obrador of a lack of political skill -- the main accusation leveled
against Fox and his stalled reform agenda.

"Lopez Obrador's political style is more rooted in the socio-economic reality of the
country" than the business-oriented Fox, said political scientist Denise Dresser of
the University of Southern California's Pacific Council on International Policy.

Fox focuses on what he believes people need -- something that hasn't won him
many popularity contests. Lopez Obrador focuses on what people want.

When his approval rating began to lag a little in August -- slipping to a still-enviable
64 percent -- Lopez Obrador used city funds to set up a circus -- complete with
tigers, giraffes and free tickets -- in front of the metropolitan cathedral in the city's
sprawling central plaza.

"It's like the Roman emperors said: 'Give the people bread and circus, and keep
them happy,"' said Salvador Estrada, 52, who lined up with his family and hundreds
of other Mexico City residents for four hours to get into the circus tent.

Estrada, like many other city residents, likes Lopez Obrador for his decision to give
elderly residents dlrs 60 a month in cash.

Programs like that have pushed the city's debt ever higher, and some compare them
to those of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Lopez
Obrador was once a member of the PRI, which maintained power for 71 years by
trading small favors for votes before being ousted by Fox in 2000.

Lopez Obrador insists there are no strings attached to his largesse. But senior
citizens do turn up at his events in surprising numbers, some looking for the
"attendance list" that used to be passed out at government events to secure favors.

'You had better not mess with the traditions'

His rhetoric is never dull.

When bank robberies became commonplace, his administration cracked down -- not
on the thieves, but on the banks. It accused them of not providing enough security
and of cooperating with bank robbers.

Given that most Mexican banks are foreign-owned and charge high interest rates,
they are easy targets for populist wrath.

Lopez Obrador spent much of his political capital his first year in office battling Fox
in a quixotic campaign over daylight savings time, threatening to put Mexico City in
a different time zone from its suburbs. The Supreme Court finally ruled against him.

Lopez Obrador rules largely by decree -- "informational orders" that don't need
approval from the local legislature, which is dominated by Fox's party.

He refused to debate his proposal to build double-decker freeways in a city choked
by expressways and subject to powerful earthquakes, and he agreed to call a
referendum only when it became clear the idea had become a political

Lopez Obrador also seems to think that violence has a natural place in Mexican
political life.

When an angry mob in a village on the city's outskirts beat a suspected thief to
death, the mayor called that an expression "of the deep, genuine Mexico."

Mob justice "is part of the culture, the beliefs, part of the tradition of community
action in the indigenous peoples. The lesson," he added, "is that you had better not
mess with the traditions and beliefs of a community."

  Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.