By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN
Four days before Mexico’s presidential election, much of the nation’s attention is focused on a man who appears certain to lose.
That man is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the fiery, feisty leftist who shut down the heart of Mexico City after the last election with massive protests against a narrow loss that he blamed on electoral fraud. Lopez Obrador drew hundreds of thousands back downtown Wednesday night for a massive end-of-campaign rally to hail what he called his imminent victory.
The only problem is that final polls released Wednesday show Lopez Obrador well in second place, with the candidate of Mexico’s former ruling party, Enrique Pena Nieto, anywhere from 8 to 17 percentage points in the lead.
As a result, few expect anything other than a Pena Nieto victory that will return the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to the presidency after 12 years out of the nation’s highest office.
What remains in doubt for millions of Mexicans is whether Lopez Obrador will quietly accept defeat? Or will he call his followers back to the streets for a repeat of the 2006 protests that shut down the capital’s center for six weeks and shook the faith of many, at home and abroad, in the stability of Mexico’s young democracy?
In that election race, Lopez Obrador led until the final days and his backers could not believe the official result showing him less than 1 percentage point short of victor Felipe Calderon, though electoral courts upheld it. Lopez Obrador declared himself the “legitimate president of Mexico,” named a Cabinet and toured the country to rally backers against the alleged electoral fraud.
This time around, polls show him well back but his final campaign rally on Wednesday is to many Mexicans an uncomfortable echo of the last electoral battle.
Thousands of supporters waving the yellow flags of his party and wearing Lopez Obrador T-shirts shouted, “President! President! You are the President!” as they lined four lanes of Mexico City’s central Reforma boulevard and walked to the Zocalo, the centuries-old square in the center of downtown that has served as the base for many of his protests.
Some of his supporters brought their pets, among them a white bull terrier with a message written on its side that read “a dog’s life no more.”
There were so many of his followers trying to get near Lopez Obrador that at one point of the march his security team had to take him out of the crowd through a hole they tore in a construction fencing around the Alameda park.
At the Zocalo, more than 100,000 gathered to hear him speak. Thousands who couldn’t make it to the massive plaza gathered around huge screens hanging on cranes in the surrounding streets.
Lopez Obrador spoke for more than an hour describing his presidency as if he had already won. He described a Mexico where he would fund more social spending without new taxes by cutting government waste and corruption.
At the end of his speech, he spoke in emotional terms about the love he felt for his supporters whose commitment he said drove him to seek victory.
He ended his campaign by shouting “Long live the new republic! Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!”
Maria Antonia Bedolla, a 37-year-old housewife at the march, said she is ready to take to the streets if Lopez Obrador loses again.
Lopez Obrador softened his rhetoric at the start of this three-month campaign, saying he wants to build a “Republic of Love” marked by reconciliation and peace. In recent days he has been pledging, when pressed, that he will respect the will of the people, though he asserts he is ahead.
But the former Mexico City mayor has also been launching sharp attacks on Pena Nieto and the PRI, and routinely expressing grave doubts about the validity of the electoral process and the potential for fraud.
He called Tuesday for supporters to closely monitor polling stations.
Luis Rubio, president of the Center for Development Research, an independent think tank, said that Lopez Obrador has been “anticipating the alleged fraud for weeks. The notion that there is fraud is alive and well in his rhetoric.”
Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute was pressuring the candidates Wednesday to sign a “civility pact” committing them to respect the legitimacy and legality of Sunday’s election results, a document that appeared squarely aimed at Lopez Obrador. The leftist has pledged that he or a campaign adviser would sign the pact in coming days.
Pedro Joaquin Coldwell, president of the PRI, told reporters that the pledge “is a guarantee that will avoid a post-electoral conflict. The country doesn’t deserve to live through the nightmare of the last six years.”
Rubio said any new protests may not grow to anywhere near the size of those in 2006. Many Mexicans will have no tolerance for a repeat, among them the politically ambitious mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, who is widely seen as the future of Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party.
A wide margin of defeat would also sap the energy of any protest.
The polls show Pena Nieto favored by 32.2 percent to 41.2 percent of voters, in polls with margins of error ranging from 2.5 to 3 percent.
Lopez Obrador had support ranging from 23.8 to 25.4 percent. Josefina Vaquez Mota of the conservative National Action Party was third with support ranging from 18.8 to 20.8 percent.
Rubio also said that Lopez Obrador could be bolstered by a recent surge of antipathy toward the PRI, which ruled Mexico with a near total control for seven decades. That hostility has been most vocal among a national student movement that began with a protest against Pena Nieto at a private Mexico City university.
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson, E. Eduardo Castillo and Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report.