A messianic politician has laid siege to Mexico City. He is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the self-described "Little Ray of Hope" for the dispossessed who served as an extremely popular mayor of this metropolis from 2000 to 2005. He and his apostles have installed 47 encampments in the Zocalo central plaza and along major thoroughfares, turning the heart of the capital into a huge parking lot teeming with furious motorists.
"To those who don't think like us, I offer a sincere apology for the inconveniences that our movement can cause," Mr. Lopez Obrador sermonized. "I hope that one day they come to ... understand that this struggle is necessary."
By strangling the downtown financial and tourist district, he hopes to force a special electoral tribunal to spark a ballot-by-ballot recount of the nearly 42 million votes cast to reverse his apparent defeat in the July 2 presidential contest.
Mr. Lopez Obrador, 52, is not a run-of-the-mill populist like Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. Most Latin American demagogues believe that they only "represent" the masses. In contrast, the Little Ray of Hope is convinced that he incarnates the struggle of the "have nots" against an illegitimate regime. In his view, law is the "will of the people" as he interprets it - not statutes enacted by elected officials.
When Mr. Lopez Obrador nearly drowned as a university student, he told a biographer that it was not death that he feared but the inability to fulfill his "mission." He later lived more than five years among the impoverished Chontal Indians, who, because of his commitment to their plight, called him lesho, signifying love bordering on adoration.
As an activist in the leftist, nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party, he spearheaded "Exodus" marches to protest the political and environmental pollution of his oil-endowed native state of Tabasco, while proclaiming his own version of the Ten Commandments to instruct members of his party how to live moral, patriotic lives.
He is determined to save the dispossessed from iniquitous pro-market policies pursued by outgoing President Vicente Fox and endorsed by tentative winner Felipe Calderon.
The initial tally found the self-righteous crusader finishing second by only 243,934 votes (0.58 percent) to Mr. Calderon, the lawyerly, 43-year-old nominee of Mr. Fox's National Action Party. Thus, the insistence on a recount.
The problem is that his nation's electoral law calls for a recount only in the precincts where complaints were registered on Election Day. Authorities addressed minor irregularities in early July, and poll watchers from his and the four other parties that competed in the race, as well as thousands of independent observers, concurred in the preliminary results.
Still, the zealous Tabascan has alleged widespread fraud by voting officials, the business community and Mr. Fox, whom he scorns as a "traitor to democracy." The secretary general of the Democratic Revolutionary Party has raised the specter of an "insurrection" if election judges fail to comply with the increasingly shrill demand of the Little Ray of Hope.
If Mr. Lopez Obrador were an orthodox politician, he would calmly await the tribunal's ruling without occupying the capital. Even if not declared the victor, he accomplished remarkable gains in the recent election. He rolled up twice the vote of his party's standard-bearer six years ago. He also helped the left soar to all-time highs in Congress: 160 seats in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies and 36 seats in the 128-member Senate.
Above all, he placed economic inequality (the 10 percent elite control 45 percent of national wealth) and poverty (nearly 50 percent of the nation's 107.5 million people) high on the country's agenda. Mr. Calderon, a moderate who is inspired by social-Christian principles, has already assembled a task force to improve the nation's public health system.
By graciously accepting his likely loss, Mr. Lopez Obrador would find Mr. Calderon receptive to inviting notables from Mr. Lopez Obrador's party into his Cabinet, possibly to oversee social programs. Should a National Action Party-led government fail to impel reforms in education, health-care, job-creation, and other areas to lift up the downtrodden, the Little Ray of Hope would be well-placed to capture the presidency in six years.
Yet by indulging in holier-than-thou rhetoric and alienating the public with street blockages, he is smearing the image of the left and laying the groundwork for his own political crucifixion.
George W. Grayson teaches government at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. His e-mail is email@example.com.