Mexico's president takes office amid fistfights

Mexcican President Vicente Fox, left, begins the transition of power to newly-elected President Felipe Calderon, right, at an unusual midnight ceremony early Friday in the presidential residence in Mexico City.Gustavo Benitez / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Felipe Calderon took the oath of office as Mexico’s president Friday amid jeers and whistles, in a lightning-fast ceremony before congress that was preceded by a brawl between lawmakers divided over the tight presidential election.

Calderon entered through a back door and appeared suddenly on the speaker’s platform, which was the site of three days of fistfights and sit-ins by lawmakers seeking to control the stage. Physically protected by dozens of lawmakers and flanked by outgoing President Vicente Fox, Calderon swore to uphold the constitution in comments almost inaudible over the noise.

Congress’ leader ordered the national anthem played, momentarily stilling the catcalls and shouting, before Calderon made a quick exit and congress adjourned. Foreign dignitaries — including former President George H.W. Bush, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Spanish Prince Felipe Asturias — sat in a balcony overlooking the scene.

“He did it! He did it!” chanted ruling party lawmakers.

Former presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, claims he was robbed of the presidency and has declared himself “legitimate president.” He called on thousands of supporters in Mexico’s main Zocalo plaza to march peacefully to the National Auditorium, where Calderon was scheduled to address the nation.

Political chaos
His supporters in Congress had seized entrances to the congressional chamber Friday morning in an attempt to block Calderon from taking office. The leftist lawmakers, who draped a giant banner across the chamber reading “Mexico doesn’t deserve a traitor to democracy as president,” exchanged punches with ruling-party lawmakers and erected barricades of chairs as Calderon supporters chanted “Mexico wants peace.”

Anticipating the standoff, the conservative Calderon took control of the presidential residence hours earlier in an unusual midnight ceremony with Fox, swearing in part of his Cabinet.

That left experts on Mexico’s constitution puzzled over whether Mexico had a president Friday morning. The constitution requires presidents to be sworn in “before congress,” and Friday’s brief ceremony in the congressional chamber appeared to put the technical debate over Calderon’s legitimacy to rest.

Bush, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza and several bodyguards, said the chaos did not bother him.

“I’m not worried at all. It will work out,” he said, adding: “The U.S. will work with him every way we can.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quipped as he arrived: “It’s good action.”

'Start a new stage'
Calderon, in the midnight ceremony, acknowledged the political chaos.

“I am not unaware of the complexity of the political times we are living through, nor of our differences,” he said. “But I am convinced that today we should put an end to our disagreements and from there, start a new stage whose only aim would be to place the interests of the nation above our differences.”

He was expected to address the nation the nation at the heavily guarded National Auditorium on the other side of Mexico City. He then planned to go to an adjacent military parade ground where army commanders will swear allegiance to the elected head of state, symbolizing the military’s tradition of staying out of politics since the 1930s.