Conservative Felipe Calderon was officially declared the winner of Mexico's presidential election Thursday, outpolling leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by less than a percentage point after more than three days of vote counting.
Lopez Obrador immediately denounced irregularities in the official count and said he would launch an effort to overturn Calderon's victory before Mexico's Federal Electoral Tribunal. Legal analysts believe the seven-judge panel, which has exercised its power to overturn gubernatorial elections and order new votes, is likely to consider the case.
Lopez Obrador, formerly mayor of Mexico City, urged his followers to attend a massive rally Saturday in the capital's central square, the Zocalo, to protest the election result. Calderon called on his followers to make their own voices heard so their votes "are not thrown into the trash bin."
Calderon promised to work to unite Mexicans divided by one of the most bitter campaigns in the nation's political history, and said he would fight any court challenge to his victory.
"This is not my victory, it is the victory of Mexicans who decided by peaceful means who should be president," Calderon told a group of supporters. "I ask you to be vigilant because we're going to need each and every one of you to ensure that these votes are not thrown out."
With all 41 million of Sunday's votes tabulated, Calderon was the winner by about 244,000 ballots, or 0.58 of a percentage point, election officials said. Millions of Mexicans watched the conclusion of the count on television before dawn Thursday.
It was the second nail-biting, overnight tallying in less than a week.
A preliminary count completed Monday found the race too close to call.
That led to unexpected attention being paid to the usually unnoticed count of polling station reports that began at 8 a.m. Wednesday at 300 election offices across Mexico.
For 20 hours, the count showed Lopez Obrador narrowly in the lead. But shortly after 4 a.m. Thursday, with less than 4% of the stations left to be counted, Calderon squeaked ahead. For reasons that remained unclear, votes from many northern states where Calderon was strongest were tallied last.
Minutes later, the conservative candidate took the stage outside the headquarters of his National Action Party and claimed victory.
Analysts agree that Calderon, 43, won largely because of a sophisticated media campaign that warned voters of the "dangers" of a Lopez Obrador presidency.
Radio and television commercials charged that the charismatic former mayor was a demagogic populist who would bring Mexico to financial ruin if elected. The ads hit home with voters who remembered runaway inflation and monetary devaluation in the recent past.
Trailing badly in the polls as late as March, and dismissed by many pundits as a boring party loyalist, Calderon gradually gained ground on Lopez Obrador.
Calderon was still narrowly behind in the last set of polls, released June 23. But as his TV and radio campaign continued for five more days, he pulled off a dramatic comeback.
"It's what the country needed," said Alejandra Sofia, a Calderon supporter who joined the celebration at the PAN headquarters. "Felipe will get the country going. He really thinks of the poor, not like the other guy, who wants to hypnotize them."
Calderon's margin of victory was the narrowest of any Mexican presidential election.
Lopez Obrador has until Sunday to present a formal challenge to the Federal Electoral Tribunal. If he doesn't prevail, Calderon will take the oath of office Dec. 1.
As president, he would face a host of challenges in governing an impoverished country sharply and evenly divided over the issues of social justice and economic growth, which defined the campaign.
"Today the only thing that is clear is that there is conflict and tension in our society," said Sergio Aguayo, a writer and columnist here. "That's not good for democracy."
Lopez Obrador ran on the slogan "For the good of everyone, the poor first" and promised to open the public coffers to pay greater subsidies to those most in need.
For months, he was the prohibitive favorite to win, but his campaign faltered when for weeks he declined to air commercials responding to Calderon's attacks.
At a news conference Wednesday morning, Lopez Obrador, 52, accused the government of outgoing President Vicente Fox and federal election authorities of tampering with the vote count.
Officials of Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party said they had ample evidence of irregularities in the count at thousands of polling stations.
"We will demonstrate that he did not win," Lopez Obrador said when asked about Calderon. "He should be ashamed to declare himself a winner. You can't aspire to be president of the republic if you don't have any moral authority."
The tribunal was created by Congress after a 1988 presidential election widely believed to have been stolen by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, then the dominant party.
Tribunal members have broad powers in all matters related to elections. In recent years, they have overturned the results of several local elections, including the 2000 governor's race in Tabasco state, the mayor's race in Ciudad Juarez in 2001 and the Colima gubernatorial election in 2003.
In all those cases, the judges ordered new elections. In some, they found that local officials had used their control of government resources and influence over the media to turn the campaigns into an unfair competition.
"The tribunal has a history of taking complaints very seriously," said John M. Ackerman, a professor of law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico here. "And it's in the interest of their own legitimacy to do so in this case."
But invalidating a presidential election would take the court into new, potentially treacherous territory, analysts said.
The tribunal has already intervened several times in this year's campaign. In May, the judges ruled that the phrase "Lopez Obrador is a danger to Mexico" should be excised from Calderon's television and radio commercials.
It was an unfair attack on the candidate's character, the judges said.
The tribunal also ruled that public-service television commercials featuring Fox were a thinly veiled attempt to aid Calderon's campaign and ordered them taken off the air.
No election in Mexico is legally valid until the tribunal says so, even in the absence of a dispute.
The members have until September to rule on the validity of the presidential vote.
Lopez Obrador has charged that the preliminary count was plagued by irregularities. Even before the official count of polling place reports began Wednesday, he demanded that election officials open each of the hundreds of thousands of ballot boxes and recount all 41 million ballots by hand.
Officials said such a request was both impractical and in violation of Mexican law.
However, local election officials did open hundreds of individual boxes Wednesday. In many cases, they found significant discrepancies between the polling sheet reports and the ballots inside, often changing the official count in favor of Lopez Obrador, witness and news reports said.
In response to the allegations of irregularities, the top government official in charge of running the election insisted that this year's presidential election was the cleanest in Mexican history.
"On the date of the vote, there were only a minimal number of incidents," said Luis Carlos Ugalde, president of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute, which is separate from the tribunal. "We received no complaints from any of the parties involved.... The votes were counted in the presence of 1 million witnesses."
Jesus Cantu Escalante, a former election official, said the electoral court could order individual ballot boxes opened and recounted in response to Lopez Obrador's charges.
If that happens, Mexicans could find themselves witnessing a drama much like the one that dragged on for weeks in Florida in the 2000 U.S. presidential election. It remains unclear whether the tribunal could, or would, order a nationwide recount of the ballots.
Arturo Sarukhan, an advisor to Calderon, said the campaign would consent to the reopening and recounting of some but not all of the boxes and ballots.
"Felipe Calderon has been clear that he is willing to recount vote by vote in every single ballot box of every single district that shows inconsistencies," Sarukhan said.
At 6 p.m., Ugalde officially announced the results of the polling station count. He rattled off the names and vote totals for each of the five candidates on the ballot.
Then, without repeating Calderon's name, he announced, "The winner is the candidate with the most votes."
Times staff writers Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.
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With all 41 million votes counted, Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party had 35.89%, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party had 35.31%.
Lopez Obrador: 14,756,350