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Calderon’s Lead Slim; Rival Isn’t Conceding

Times Staff Writer

Conservative presidential candidate Felipe Calderon held a slim but apparently insurmountable lead Monday over leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who alleged widespread fraud and said he would not concede defeat.

With 98% of polling stations reporting, Calderon led Lopez Obrador by 402,000 votes, or about 1 percentage point. Lopez Obrador would need to win three-quarters of the remaining 800,000 uncounted ballots to surpass his rival.

But Lopez Obrador told reporters Monday at his party headquarters that early tallies by federal electoral authorities were missing 3 million votes. The allegation could not be verified.

“There are many irregularities,” Lopez Obrador alleged. “Obviously, there was a manipulation” of the results, he said.

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Mexican election authorities said they would not announce a final tally before Wednesday, when the legally mandated recount begins.

At last count, Calderon had 36% of the vote against 35% for Lopez Obrador.

Analysts here said Mexico could face days, if not weeks or months, of political uncertainty.

After a night of political drama, Mexican newspapers reveled in the uncertainty Monday morning. “The Winner Is ... " declared a headline in Reforma, next to photographs of Calderon and Lopez Obrador.

But the crowds of enraged protesters that many feared would take over the streets of this capital city failed to materialize. Across the city, people began cleaning up the postelection detritus and returned to their workday routines. Financial markets here rallied on word of Calderon’s lead.

In an interview Monday on the Televisa network, Calderon turned to face the camera and told viewers he would be sworn in as president on Dec. 1.

“Today I can assure every Mexican that I won the election,” he said.

In two interviews Monday, Lopez Obrador said his campaign could present enough evidence to contest the election. Analysts said Lopez Obrador could petition Mexico’s Federal Electoral Tribunal to overturn a Calderon victory.

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Such a challenge would be the first serious test of Mexico’s modernized electoral system, which has transformed itself from one of the hemisphere’s most disreputable to one of the most exemplary.

Officials of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose candidate Roberto Madrazo was running a distant third with 21.5% of the votes, announced Sunday night that they would contest the election results in the courts.

“Now it’s the turn of the lawyers and the specialists,” said Sergio Aguayo, a writer and commentator here. “The fact that there’s just a 1-point differential opens the field to many different challenges.”

Beyond ballot issues, Lopez Obrador also could charge that President Vicente Fox violated Mexico’s strict election laws when he toured the country for months making speeches and giving out scholarships in what many considered a thinly veiled campaign to support Calderon, who is with his National Action Party, or PAN.

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Mexican presidents are prohibited from campaigning for their successors.

Lopez Obrador also could challenge the results at individual polling places, though such a petition is unlikely to succeed. Independent observers here have praised the conduct of Sunday’s vote.

In a bid to overcome a long history of voter fraud, Mexico has adopted a series of strict federal laws and created independent electoral institutions and a respected system of electoral courts that have won international praise. Anti-fraud measures include a single voter registry and a uniform photo ID card for voters.

“It’s very normal here for close elections to end up in the courts,” said Lorenzo Cordova, a specialist in electoral law and former member of Mexico’s Federal Election Institute. “In the last decade, political disputes here have increasingly moved from the streets to the judicial system.”

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Electoral laws are so strict, Cordova said, that an aggressive lawyer could argue that Fox violated the law on election day when he showed reporters and photographers that he had marked his ballot for Calderon.

Plans for a quick and accurate count went awry early Sunday night when the independent Federal Election Institute said the race was too close to call. After hours of respecting laws that prohibit candidates from declaring victory before an official tally, both Lopez Obrador and Calderon announced publicly that they had won.

On Monday morning, both men reiterated those declarations.

“We won, yes, by a narrow margin,” Calderon said in a television interview. “It’s time to recognize the result. It’s not my triumph -- it’s the triumph of the Mexican people.”

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Lopez Obrador said that if election officials certified a Calderon victory, he might accept defeat. But he said his campaign had noted “a tendency that is not normal” in the official count early Monday morning.

“Any candidate or party has the right to review the documentation” of the vote count, Lopez Obrador told Televisa. “All I’m asking is that we be allowed to verify the data.”

Then, like two grandmasters standing over a chessboard contemplating their next move, both campaigns retired to their “bunkers” for the rest of the day to debate strategy. Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, canceled a midday news conference. And Calderon’s PAN made no further statements.

PRD officials clung to a faint hope that uncounted votes from remote rural areas would give Lopez Obrador victory. By Monday evening, those hopes were fading.

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A legal challenge to a Calderon victory is not likely to succeed, analysts said, but could damage Calderon’s legitimacy. The legal contest also may be a first move aimed at winning concessions from Calderon.

“Both sides are preparing for battle, in the political sphere and the media,” Aguayo, the commentator, said. “The confrontation between the left and the right has not ended.”

The Federal Electoral Tribunal has until September to validate the result. In recent years, the tribunal has invalidated two gubernatorial elections and several mayoral races.

But the panel is “very unlikely to risk the political and social instability that nullifying a presidential election would imply,” said Pamela Starr, Latin America analyst for Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm.

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Lopez Obrador is faced with a stark choice, Starr said. If he concedes the election, he will alienate the radical members of his party, who recall bitterly how the leftist opposition front that later became the PRD conceded quickly in 1988, a presidential election most observers believe the PRI stole from Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

However, if Lopez Obrador calls his supporters to the streets, he could alienate the centrist voters he failed to win on election day and who are key to his party’s future.

“Lopez Obrador is a very pragmatic politician and he’s weighing his options,” Starr said. “He still wants to be president. The question is will he be president in this election, or in six years.”

The tight result seemed to place in doubt -- for a few hours, at least -- the viability of Mexico’s fledgling democratic institutions. But some observers were heartened by the calm that prevailed Monday morning on the streets of Mexico City.

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At the Zocalo, this capital city’s central square, a stage that had been set up for a Lopez Obrador victory rally was dismantled. The hundreds of supporters who had gathered the night before to hear him speak were long gone.

Newspaper vendor Ines Angela, 55, pointed to a picture of Calderon in the newspaper Mediodia and said, “He’s going to win. I like him.”

But nearby, Maximino Gonzalez, 73, said he felt cheated. “The one who won fairly and by a wide margin was Lopez Obrador,” he said. “They want to steal his triumph, that’s why they’re dragging out the result.”

Whoever becomes Mexico’s next president will face a host of challenges.

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Results in congressional races showed no party would have a majority in either the Chamber of Deputies or Senate, though Calderon’s PAN became the largest party in both houses for the first time.

Mexico’s stock market rallied Monday and the peso strengthened on news that the pro-business Calderon may have pulled off a narrow victory.

“It was a great sigh of relief for the markets,” said analyst Guillermo Mascarenas Cortina Jr. of IXE Casa de Bolsa in Mexico City.

But others warned that the exuberance could be short-lived if a recount is protracted, or if Lopez Obrador mounts an aggressive challenge to the results.

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“The quicker we get out of this, the greater the certainty for governability down the road,” said Jorge Ramos, Latin America analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York.

Times staff writers Marla Dickerson in Monterrey and Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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