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Lopez Obrador, supporters holding fast to demands

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MEXICO CITY — This huge cosmopolitan city takes almost everything in stride, but nerves are beginning to fray. For the past week, the Paseo de la Reforma and the Zocalo — Mexico City's grandest boulevard and its most historic plaza — have been occupied by a tent-city encampment of protesters demanding a recount of last month's presidential election. Traffic was always bad, but now the concept of gridlock is being redefined.

On Thursday, demonstrators briefly blocked the entrance to the stock exchange. Rumors that they would try to shut down Mexico City's international airport prompted authorities to send in elite forces to beef up security. Newspapers speculate daily on other potential targets.

In his first interview with U.S. journalists since the election, the man responsible for all the drama, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, didn't sound like the delusional would-be Messiah his opponents portray. He sounded like a confident, stubborn man who truly believes he was robbed of the July 2 election and intends to fight to the bitter end. Maybe beyond.

Official returns showed leftist Lopez Obrador losing to the candidate of the right, Felipe Calderon, by a margin of 0.6 percent. Lopez Obrador seemed a sure winner, according to exit polls, and he alleged widespread fraud in the vote count. On Saturday the Federal Electoral Judicial Tribunal ordered a limited recount — fewer than 10 percent of ballots cast will be reviewed — and Lopez Obrador answered by renewing his demand that every single vote cast nationwide be recounted.

"I could not accept anything else," Lopez Obrador said in the interview Sunday, which took place in the silver-and-blue tent at the edge of the Zocalo where he had spent the past several nights, surrounded by supporters from his PRD coalition. He had just finished a speech reassuring the crowd that their "peaceful civil resistance" would continue.

Hanging from a stanchion behind him was a Mexican flag suitable for the tent of a president. There was a kind of antechamber in which he conducted business and another compartment furnished with a cot.

In Lopez Obrador's view, Mexico is still in a democratic transition after seven decades of one-party rule. It is a country with "profound social inequalities," a "classist and racist" nation where the wealthy power brokers "are not businessmen, but are traffickers in influence." He sees his candidacy as a historic opportunity to give the disenfranchised majority a real voice for the first time.

His message has had tremendous resonance. Mexico is riven by many fractures — rich vs. poor, white vs. indigenous, the relatively affluent north vs. the desperately impoverished south. Roughly speaking, Calderon appealed to the wealthy, the middle-class and the upwardly mobile poor who believed they had a chance of reaching the middle class. Lopez Obrador appealed to poor Mexicans who believed the deck was stacked against them, and to better-off voters who agreed with his ideology.

The election was also a referendum on the free-market policies that President Vicente Fox has adopted and that Calderon, who is from the same party, PAN, would continue. Many poor Mexicans have yet to see any benefit.

Lopez Obrador said he believes Calderon and his supporters are resisting a full recount because they know fraud was committed. "Fundamentally, what you have is a profound fear of losing privilege," he said. "They believe that Mexico belongs to them."

The electoral court rejected many of Lopez Obrador's specific allegations of voting irregularities. Calderon's camp says that now that the court has ruled, the limited recount will proceed and the matter will be settled. So few ballot boxes are being re-examined that it is virtually impossible for the result to change. But if the electoral court sees a pattern of fraud, it might still order a full recount or even an annulment of the whole election. The court has until Sept. 6 to make a final ruling.

Lopez Obrador's major weapon in this struggle is the ability to summon a million people to the Zocalo for a rally, as he did recently — and to inspire tens of thousands to sleep for a week in tents, pitched on hard pavement, through rain, sleet and unseasonal cold. They say they will never give up.

Mexico's public universities resume classes on Aug. 14, which will throw thousands of left-leaning students into the mix — a potentially volatile element. But Lopez Obrador won't say when he will give the order to strike the tents and go home. He also won't say what he'll do if the whole legal process is exhausted and he still doesn't get the full recount he demands.

"We'll see," he promised.

Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.