Disputed Election Puts Strain on Mexicans

Times Staff Writer

Manuela Camacho says she prays every day to the saints to protect her hero the presidential candidate. Sitting a few feet away, her 25-year-old granddaughter, Lorena Morales, rolls her eyes in exasperation.

Although the two women have a deep and abiding respect for each other, on this topic grandmother and granddaughter don't agree: Morales voted for the other guy.

With each day that Mexico's election controversy drags on, the topic of who really won July 2 and whether the votes should be recounted is becoming harder for the Morales family to talk about, pitting matriarch against loving grandchild, husband against wife.

Across Mexico, in private and public spaces, it's the same: Feelings are becoming more strained, the opinions more strident.

Was the election fraudulent or the cleanest in Mexican history? Was the conservative Felipe Calderon indeed the winner? Or is leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador right when he says he was robbed by a corrupt and inefficient system? Mexico's Federal Electoral Tribunal is deciding the case, but the judges may not reach a verdict for weeks.

"They say there's fraud, but the only proof they offer is the fact that they say so," Lorena Morales tells her grandmother. The younger woman voted for the conservative Calderon -- mostly because she can't stand the "big mouth" Lopez Obrador.

"For me, there was fraud," the older woman answers. Camacho believes the former Mexico City mayor is one of the few leaders who really cares about the elderly and the poor.

"It's that yellow-bellied [President Vicente] Fox who's behind it."

Calderon won in the final official tally by about 244,000 votes, or less than a percentage point, but most Mexican newspapers have yet to proclaim him president-elect. The newspaper El Universal refers to him as Mexico's "virtual president."

Lopez Obrador has kept the controversy alive with a campaign to pressure the seven-judge tribunal to order a ballot-by-ballot recount. On Sunday, Lopez Obrador led hundreds of thousands of people on a march through Mexico City in support of his demand.

Calderon's backers have responded with a series of television commercials arguing that the vote was clean and fair. "We counted the vote three times, in front of the representatives of all the parties," Mexico City poll worker Manuel Castro says in one of the ads, sponsored by a group called "For a Mexico in Peace."

On Tuesday morning, a full-page ad in the daily newspaper Milenio called Lopez Obrador a treasonous demagogue and said he was starting a civil war. That same afternoon, a small crowd of Lopez Obrador supporters pounded the windows of Calderon's car, accusing him of stealing the election.

"People are not anxious, but they are angry," says Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent historian here. "The anger is strongest on the side of the left, because they feel cheated. Whether it's true or not, the perception is there."

For much of the 20th century, elections in Mexico were farcical affairs, rigged by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. In the 1990s, Mexican legislators created the Federal Electoral Institute to oversee all elections and prevent the blatant vote-stealing of the past, and in 2000 Fox, of the National Action Party, or PAN, won the presidency.

Now Lopez Obrador is calling into question the independence of Mexico's new electoral authorities. In some Mexico City neighborhoods where his support is strongest, the streets are lined with posters that transform the initials of the electoral institute into a swastika.

Morales' father, Juan Jose Morales, is in Lopez Obrador's camp. He makes his views known during the regular Sunday visit that he, his wife and daughter Lorena make to his mother's home near downtown Mexico City.

"This is the first time we've ever had an election where it takes three days to know who the winner is -- that's what gave them time to organize the fraud," he says.

"But they can't do that anymore," his wife, Virginia Garcia, shoots back -- she supports Calderon.

"Of course they can!" Juan Jose says. "This is the most mafia-controlled country that's ever existed."

"If Lopez Obrador had won, you would have said everything with the election was fine," Virginia answers.

"We had 70 years of the PRI," Juan Jose observes wryly. "Now we're going to have 70 years of the PAN."

But what about the international observers, Lorena asks her father. They came and said the election was clean. "If we Mexicans stop believing in our institutions, then what are we going to believe in?" Lorena says.

Commentator Sergio Aguayo is among many who have suggested that a recount of the votes is the only way to mend the growing ideological divisions in Mexico and allow the new president to take office with any sense of legitimacy.

"If the tribunal ignores the petition for a recount ... it would be a stain that would forever haunt the administration and resume of Felipe Calderon," Aguayo wrote recently in the newspaper Reforma.

Lorena, a recent college graduate, agrees.

"To shut the mouth of Lopez Obrador and all the PRD people, the best thing would be to recount the votes," she tells her family, using the Spanish initials of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. "It would give Calderon credibility, even though I don't doubt his margin of victory would be smaller."

"But that's giving Lopez Obrador what he wants, and playing his game," her mother says.

"He doesn't respect anything."

Garcia and many other Mexicans see Lopez Obrador as a leader who is becoming increasingly unhinged.

Lopez Obrador didn't help his cause among these skeptics when he aired a video last week purporting to show ballot stuffing in the state of Guanajuato: His own party's representative at the polling place stepped forward to say he was wrong.

On Radio Formula in Mexico City, the morning talk show hosts are taking delight in what they see as the leftist leader's meltdown. They mock Lopez Obrador's allegations of fraud with their own "crazy" accusations.

For historian Meyer, the portrayal of Lopez Obrador as "a little crazy man" in much of the Mexican media misses an important point.

"If he's crazy, then millions of Mexicans are crazy too, and there's an epidemic of craziness," Meyer says. Even if Lopez Obrador loses in the court battle or a vote recount, his campaign could give birth to a social movement, Meyer adds.

At the Morales family home, there is one point of agreement: No one wants to see the recount controversy spin out of control.

"I'm afraid that even if they recount all the votes, Lopez Obrador is still going to say the process is tainted," Lorena says. "What will happen then?"

"I want them to recount the votes," her grandmother says. "But I want it to be done peacefully. There shouldn't be a war with the other side."

Lorena and her parents nod in agreement.

"We don't want a country where people take up arms," Juan Jose says.

A few minutes later, Camacho lights up a cigarette to try to relax after a stressful conversation. Her granddaughter points out that smoking is bad for her. But the grandmother doesn't listen. She keeps on smoking.

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