MEXICO CITY — A "vote by vote" campaign by runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has rallied Mexicans demanding a national recount of last month's presidential election and triggered two weeks of civil disobedience by his supporters.
But despite the popularity of the call for a full recount in the July 2 election, which ended with a difference of less than 1%, experts say that legal hurdles make that goal unlikely, especially given initial reports that a court-ordered partial recount completed Sunday showed no apparent pattern of fraud.
Mexico's seven-judge Federal Electoral Tribunal, which has final authority over election matters, appears bound by law and its own decisions over the last decade to declare first-place finisher Felipe Calderon the president, or call for a new vote, the experts say. The panel will begin reviewing the recount today.
"Even if fraud or widespread mistakes are found, they are more likely to throw out the election than order a full recount," said Todd A. Eisenstadt, a political scientist at American University in Washington who has written a book on the electoral tribunal and reviewed hundreds of its cases.
On Aug. 5, the tribunal ordered a recount at 9% of the nation's polling stations, a decision that signaled that the panel was opposed to a full recount. Justices said voting packets could be reopened only on evidence, not suspicions, of irregularities.
Lopez Obrador, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, has picked up several thousand votes in the recount, according to unofficial tallies leaked to Mexican papers. Most of the changes appear to be from the correction of small counting errors. But Lopez Obrador's campaign leaders contend that they are evidence of fraud.
Nonetheless, the votes he appears to have gained are far short of the 244,000 he needs to surpass Calderon in the official but still uncertified count. About 41 millions votes were cast.
At a rally Sunday before thousands of supporters in Mexico City, Lopez Obrador seemed to be preparing his followers for a ruling in favor of Calderon. He urged them to engage in acts of civil disobedience should that happen.
He also called on them to protest the ceremony at which Calderon would receive the official confirmation of his victory, at President Vicente Fox's last State of the Union speech on Sept. 1 and during Mexico's Independence Day celebrations Sept. 16.
In a recent poll, nearly half of the participants favored a national recount.
Calderon's attorneys, at one point totaling hundreds, have been preparing for a postelection fight before the tribunal since January, said lead attorney and campaign spokesman Cesar Nava. Their arguments mirrored the tribunal's previous decisions: The court has never ordered a blanket recount in its 10 years of existence.
So it was no surprise, Nava said, when the judges agreed to only recount votes at 11,839 polling stations where apparent mistakes on voter tally sheets prompted appeals by Lopez Obrador's lawyers.
Those attorneys argue that there was cheating at the polls. Evidence includes a number of polling stations with fewer votes on official tally sheets than ballots taken by voters and, in some cases, more votes tallied than ballots given out, said Arturo Nunez, one of the lawyers.
But the candidate's street campaign for a full recount has made his lawyers' job tougher. He's simultaneously called for a recount and declared that the election was tainted by fraud. The contradictory positions -- why recount a fraudulent election? -- have weakened his legal argument.
Lopez Obrador's campaign has sought to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the nation's respected electoral institutions, as well as on Calderon, who could win the legal battle but may end up taking office in a weakened political position.
"The tribunal probably won't concede a recount, but Calderon should be supporting one. The idea of a stolen election will make it far more difficult for him to govern," said Robert Pastor, director of American University's Center for Democracy and Election Management, as well as the Jimmy Carter-James Baker Commission on U.S. Federal Election Reform.
Pastor has observed about 10 Mexican elections since 1986, including the July 2 balloting. He said Mexico's electoral system was among the world's most advanced.
"There's no possibility of election fraud at the national level or the district level, but you can't eliminate the possibility at the local level, especially if not all the parties are represented at a polling station," he said.
Most important, Pastor said, is the perception among Mexicans that their election can be trusted, which he argued would be confirmed by a national recount.
In its review beginning today, the tribunal will look at disputed ballots that could not be resolved by lower judges overseeing the partial recount. Its job is to settle the polling place challenges, by either changing votes from one column to another or throwing them out, and to complete a final computation of the presidential vote. Finally, they must decide whether the election was valid and, if so, declare a president by Sept. 6.
Lopez Obrador attorneys could still call for an annulment of the election if there is enough evidence that balloting "was a mess, independent of whether there was fraud or not," said John M. Ackerman, a professor at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
"Lopez Obrador really thinks he won, and if he's right, this is a big deal," Ackerman said. "A full recount would find culprits if there was fraud. It still could happen, but it would be much more difficult now."
Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this report.