Hundreds of thousands of supporters of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador swarmed Mexico City's enormous Zocalo plaza on Saturday, preparing to select the runner-up in presidential elections as head of parallel opposition government.
Hours after President Vicente Fox celebrated Independence Day with a giant military parade, the Zocalo plaza was transformed into a sea of yellow-and-black flags, T-shirts and umbrellas representing the colors of Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party. Lopez Obrador, who claims fraud robbed him of victory in the July 2 vote, arrived in the late afternoon, greeting supporters from a large stage in front of the National Palace.
"There has been a big fraud and we are no longer able to accept that the federal electoral institute spent 28 billion pesos to commit fraud," said Antonio Romano Hernandez, a 56-year-old baker from Mexico City. "This convention is the most palpable proof of how the people of Mexico feel."
Earlier on Saturday, Fox celebrated Independence Day with a giant military parade.
Accompanied by Defense Secretary Gen. Gerardo Clemente Vega, Fox reviewed thousands of military personnel from a vehicle that rolled through the Zocalo, just one day after Lopez Obrador's activists agreed to permanently remove squatter camps from the center and from the city's main Reforma boulevard, which had been blocked for nearly seven weeks.
During the military celebration, small groups of Lopez Obrador supporters pushed up against metal barricades separating the crowds from the parade holding signs reading "Fox, crook" and "Vote by vote," a reference to their call for a full recount of the election that Lopez Obrador lost by a margin of less than 0.6 percent – a loss he attributes to fraud.
Others cheered the president and the new president-elect, Felipe Calderon of Fox's conservative National Action Party. A military band played loudly over the conflicting protests and members of the president's security guard stood by to prevent violence. No major incidents were reported.
On Friday night, when Mexico kicked off Independence holiday celebrations, Fox agreed to stay away from the square, issuing "el grito," or the cry of independence, from a city hundreds of miles (kilometers) away to avoid possible clashes with Lopez Obrador supporters.
Lopez Obrador refuses to accept Calderon's victory. He blames Fox for illegally spending government money to help Calderon win, a charge Fox has vehemently denied.
After the miltiary parade passed, Lopez Obrador supporters moved back in to the Zocalo, setting up temporary meeting places for the hundreds of thousands of delegates they expected to attend a "National Democratic Convention."
Shouts of "Obrador! Obrador!" were interspersed with organ-grinder music and the loud squawk of plastic horns blown to celebrate Independence Day.
After a series of daylong meetings by various state delegations, convention members, voting with a show of hands, were expected to elect Lopez Obrador as Mexico's "legitimate" president and formally refuse to accept Calderon's administration. Calderon is scheduled to take office on Dec. 1.
Lopez Obrador said he hoped to mass as many as 1 million people for the event. However, the Zocalo is only large enough to accommodate fewer than 200,000 people, according to calculations by several local news media and an architects association. "It's going to be a historic event for Mexico," said Mario Balbino, a 39-year-old electrical technician from Mexico state who planned to attend the convention. "We will make decisions so that there is a change in this country."
Lilia Hernandez, a 40-year-old accountant from Mexico City, said she supported the convention because "I think Lopez Obrador has some real proposals aimed at helping the poor," who make up nearly half of Mexico's population of 107 million.
Lopez Obrador told followers in the Zocalo on Friday that he was "not giving up or giving in," and he vowed to follow the convention with a nationwide tour.
Fox moved his Independence Day ceremony to Dolores Hidalgo, a city of 130,000 people, because the government had "solid information" that "radical groups" were planning violence that could have caused deaths.