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No Full Recount in Mexico

Times Staff Writer

The Federal Electoral Tribunal on Saturday unanimously rejected a petition for a full recount in Mexico’s presidential election, setting the stage for escalating protests by supporters of losing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who last week blockaded the capital’s main boulevard.

In an evening address to thousands of followers in Mexico City’s central square, the leftist candidate denounced the tribunal’s decision to conduct only a partial recount and said he would announce the next step in his campaign of civil disobedience today.

“For us, it’s very clear,” he said. “If they refuse a full recount, that’s proof that we won the presidential election.... They may have the money and the power, but we have what’s most important -- the people’s support.”

Lopez Obrador, whose campaign promised help to Mexico’s many poor, says errors, fraud and a conspiracy by the elite tainted the July 2 election. He lost by less than a percentage point and has demanded a recount of all 41 million votes cast in an election that was supposed to showcase Mexico’s transition to modern democracy. The result has divided the country.

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Free-market conservative Felipe Calderon, who finished first by 244,000 votes, says he is the rightfully elected leader of Mexico. He argued against a recount, saying that there were no legal grounds and urging the court not to bow to protesters.

Lopez Obrador waged his recount campaign with the slogan “Vote by Vote.” The former Mexico City mayor’s strategy centered on this question: “In such a close election, why not erase doubts and count twice?”

The seven-judge tribunal agreed to recount votes cast at 11,839 polling stations in 26 Mexican states because of apparent arithmetic errors or other irregularities. Recounts must be based on evidence specific to a poll station, said Justice Alfonsina Navarro, not broad suspicion.

Chief Magistrate Leonel Castillo, arguing against a full recount, said Mexicans had already counted the vote in a system that gives ordinary citizens the job of running the national election.

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Mexican polling stations are operated by trained volunteers, and the votes are counted in front of political party representatives before the results are marked on tally sheets and the ballot boxes sealed.

“They are citizens -- not permanent members of state institutions -- who are chosen randomly among their own neighbors to count the votes,” Castillo said during a nationally televised broadcast of Saturday’s session. “They verify, instant by instant, step by step, moment by moment. They’re the witnesses.”

The polling stations marked for recount -- 9% of 130,488 such stations nationwide -- represent millions of votes. The partial recount is to begin Wednesday and expected to take five days.

If Calderon did not benefit from any vote manipulation, then his lead would be expected to remain, statisticians say.

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“We’re confident this partial recount will confirm the transparency of the count by the people who participated in the July 2 election, and the subsequent victory of Felipe Calderon,” said German Martinez, a spokesman for Calderon’s National Action Party.

But if any evidence of fraud were to emerge in the partial recount, it could dramatically change the tribunal’s focus and fuel the question of whether the election was tainted.

“Two things can happen now,” said Lorenzo Cordova, a Mexican electoral law expert. “First, the results aren’t substantially altered; say, errors are found but not substantial. But if important errors are found, the option for a new recount is opened.”

Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party should consider the tribunal’s decision a partial victory, Cordova said, “It will allow checking of a considerable number of polling stations to see if the manipulation of numbers really happened or not.”

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But thousands of Lopez Obrador supporters huddled under tarps on Paseo de la Reforma jeered the ruling as word spread along the encampments that stretch nearly five miles from Chapultepec Park to the central square, called the Zocalo.

“The tribunal showed they were accomplices to fraud,” said Hipolito Bravo, 53, a camp leader and local councilman. “They sold themselves to the right, and now people are very angry. If there is a call for stronger actions, the people will follow.”

Debate over a recount was largely academic until Lopez Obrador called on hundreds of thousands of supporters at a rally a week ago to camp out on the Zocalo and Paseo de la Reforma until the tribunal agreed to his demand.

The camps have evolved into festive communities serving hot meals and providing live music, movies, wrestling and other entertainment.

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The street camps also have slowed traffic to a standstill and disrupted thousands of businesses, testing the patience of other Lopez Obrador supporters and further aggravating Calderon voters who endured three- and four-hour round-trip commutes.

President Vicente Fox has so far deferred to local authorities, most of whom used to work for Lopez Obrador when he was mayor of the capital and still back him. Fox last week beefed up federal police forces at the international airport in case that becomes the next target of protesters.

The presidential election drew deep divisions between Mexico’s more affluent north, which supported Calderon, and southern and central states that backed Lopez Obrador. Calderon supporters generally say they prospered from the free-market changes under Fox, who by law can serve only a single six-year term.

Lopez Obrador’s campaign appealed to left-leaning middle- and upper-class voters, as well as the urban and rural poor who lost ground in Mexico’s decade-long transition from a closed economy. He led in opinion polls for most of the last two years.

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Shortly after the vote, Lopez Obrador submitted an 836-page appeal to the tribunal, which has the sole authority to certify or annul an election. He has not offered proof of fraud or witnesses to back his allegations of conspiracy.

The tribunal continues to study the allegations and has until Sept. 6 to declare a winner or annul the election.

Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.


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