MEXICO CITY — Maria Gutierrez couldn't contain her outrage.
After a night of watching election coverage of polling station tallies that gave her candidate, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a slim lead into the wee hours of Thursday, she awoke to find her worst fears confirmed. Conservative Felipe Calderon had moved ahead, winning the official count by less than 1%. Gutierrez was convinced the fix was in.
The 54-year-old homemaker was one of several dozen citizens who gathered Thursday afternoon outside the offices of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute to register their displeasure with a voting process that many believe was flawed. Protesters had plastered the locked gates with bright yellow campaign posters for Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, as well as hand-lettered signs, including one that read, "No to Fraud."
Gutierrez said that nothing short of a ballot-by-ballot recount would convince her that Calderon, of the ruling National Action Party, had won. She said she would join a rally called by Lopez Obrador on Saturday in the capital, the first of many acts of civil disobedience that she thinks will be held in coming weeks.
"They think we'll get tired. But what we're really tired of is being taken for fools," she said.
On the other side of town, auto mechanic Alfonso Hernandez likened the response of Lopez Obrador supporters to that of petulant soccer fans whose team got bounced from the World Cup final.
"Whoever has the most goals wins, and this case we're talking about the most votes," he said. "They should accept it and stop with this foolishness."
Emotions were running high in the capital after Mexico's cliffhanger presidential election Sunday, with some people demanding a recount to clear up doubts about a process they say was riddled with irregularities. On the other side were those who say Mexico can't be held hostage by protesters looking to change the outcome of a hard-fought contest that didn't go their way.
President-elect Calderon called the vote "the most democratic and cleanest in the history of Mexico" even as election officials have had to defend their oversight role.
"These were clean and exemplary elections," Luis Carlos Ugalde, president of the Federal Electoral Institute, said at a news conference. "Certain things have come up as issues because of the tight margin."
The roller-coaster race saw Lopez Obrador enter Sunday's vote with a narrow lead in all major preelection polls and emerge a loser by a margin of just 236,000 votes out of 41 million ballots cast.
For decades, many Mexicans have harbored an innate distrust of elections and electoral procedures. A disputed presidential election in 1910 triggered the country's bloody, decade-long revolution.
During the 71 years that it ruled Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party was often accused of using fraud to block opposition parties from breaking its political monopoly.
To some Lopez Obrador supporters, the outcome evokes memories of the tainted 1988 presidential race. In that contest, the national computerized vote-counting system suffered a mysterious, hours-long shutdown on election day. After it finally began operating again, the ruling PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari was declared the winner. But some independent analysts believe the PRI illegally stole the race from breakaway candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist coalition that later became the PRD.
This time, PRD officials claim that nearly 52,000 polling stations had "grave inconsistencies," with hundreds allegedly showing more ballots cast than there were registered voters.
"I thought those days were behind us, but apparently not," said Esther Pena, 75, who joined protesters outside the electoral institute's gates.
Several commentators and political cartoonists have been quick to invoke, or dismiss, comparisons between this election and the contest 18 years ago.
Sociologist José Woldenberg, in an op-ed piece Thursday in the daily Reforma, argued against the likelihood of such fraud occurring again given the electoral reforms implemented in the years since.
"To compare the current situation with that of '88 is no more than a delirium," Woldenberg, the former head of the Federal Electoral Institute, wrote.
But another Mexico City newspaper, La Jornada, ran a cartoon depicting current electoral chief Ugalde declaring, "Already more numbers are flowing" while holding up a piece of paper inscribed "1988."
Writer and columnist Sergio Aguayo, who for decades has worked to foster free and transparent elections, said the suspicion hanging over Thursday's results was a setback for democracy in Mexico.
"I'm sad because we've fought so hard for clean and trustworthy elections," he said.
Times staff writers Reed Johnson, Richard Boudreaux and Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.