updated 4/7/2005 9:27:40 PM ET 2005-04-08T01:27:40

Mexico’s Congress stripped Mexico City’s leftist mayor of his immunity from prosecution Thursday, clearing the way for his arrest in a vote that could also block him from running in the 2006 presidential race.

The House vote against Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, similar to impeachment, could force him to stand trial on charges he disobeyed a court order to stop construction of a road on contested private land. It effectively removes him from office.

Earlier in the day, the populist mayor told a rally of more than 100,000 supporters in the capital’s central plaza that he would turn himself in, go to jail, refuse to accept bail and later represent himself in court against charges.

He also addressed Congress before the vote, saying defiantly, “I am proud to be accused, like those who struggled for justice in the past.”

A popular voice
“Today, you are judging me, but don’t forget that later history will judge both of us,” he said before stalking out of the building.

Lopez Obrador is the most popular of all potential candidates in public-opinion polls, but people facing criminal charges are barred from running for election under most interpretations of Mexican law.

Some of those who voted against him Thursday in Congress voiced concerns about his popularity, messianic rhetoric and occasional contempt for democratic forms like accountability and the separation of powers.

“Excessive pride is a bad thing,” said Rep. Francisco Arroyo Vieyra of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. “We cannot allow Mexico’s political life to center on one person, because we’ve had bad experiences with that in the past.”

Charismatic left gaining in Latin America
Lopez Obrador is part of a rising tide of charismatic leftist leaders in Latin America. While some compare him to Hugo Chavez — the socialist Venezuelan president whom the United States considers a dictator — others say efforts to keep him out of the 2006 presidential race could pose an even greater risk to Mexico’s nascent democracy.

Lopez Obrador depicted the vote as an attempt by President Vicente Fox to knock him out of the 2006 race, an allegation Fox denies. Many say the moves pose a risk to Mexico’s nascent democracy and fear protests by the mayor’s fervent supporters.

Lopez urged demonstrators at Thursday’s rally not to “fall into this trap” set by rivals by taking “radical measures that will scare people away and cause us to lose our popular support, so they can depict us as violent and quarrelsome.”

“This movement is, has been and will be peaceful,” he said, while leaving the door open to “civil resistance.”

‘We just want free elections’
“It’s not fair that they’re trying to get rid of a candidate, rather than defeating him at the ballot box,” said Juana Hernandez Garduno, a 66-year-old homemaker who received a housing loan from Lopez Obrador’s administration. “We just want free elections.”

Lopez Obrador has built a following based on handout programs and public works projects. On Thursday he proposed “a homeland for all, a homeland for the humiliated,” which in the past he has said would involve a more state-supported economy, greater reliance on oil revenues and a renegotiation of free trade pacts.

“They call him a populist because he hands out money,” said Ernesto Pena, 47, a restaurant owner who attended the mayor’s rally. “But the reason none of the other politicians hands out money is because they just steal it.”

The crowd cheered wildly when Lopez Obrador finally declared his candidacy for the 2006 race.

“Wherever I am, I am going to compete for the internal vote of my party for the presidency of the republic,” he said.

Authorities seek court order
The federal attorney general’s office has said it would immediately request a court order for Lopez Obrador’s arrest after the vote.

“He may try to depict himself as a victim ... or the champion of popular causes,” federal prosecutor Carlos Javier Vega told Congress on Thursday, “but he can never justify having disobeyed a court order.”

Analysts have warned that the congressional vote could cause political instability, wreak havoc on financial markets and undermine Mexicans’ faith in their fledgling democracy.

Lopez Obrador, who has frequently depicted himself as a victim and a martyr when challenged in the past, took Thursday’s events in stride.

Before the vote, he told Congress: “I am proud to be accused by those who deceived Mexico, who offered change, and then defrauded the public.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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