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Calderon Moves Closer to Victory in Mexico

A court finds no sign of widespread fraud in a partial recount of the July 2 presidential vote.

August 29, 2006|Hector Tobar and Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's top electoral court announced Monday that a partial recount of the votes in this country's disputed presidential election found no evidence of widespread fraud, a ruling that placed conservative Felipe Calderon tantalizingly close to victory.

In its 7-0 ruling, the Federal Electoral Tribunal rejected the claim by Calderon's leftist opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, that fraud in the ballot count had cost him the July 2 election and said it had found only minor mathematical and administrative errors in the initial tally.

The recount subtracted 4,183 votes from Calderon's margin of victory, reducing it to about 240,000, the judges said.

"This tribunal can say to the citizenry that their votes were counted fairly," said Magistrate Fernando Ojesto. "We have followed the principle of one man, one vote, and of effective suffrage."

The panel has until Sept. 6 to declare an official winner and still could refuse to certify the election. Lopez Obrador contends that President Vicente Fox and business groups illegally aided Calderon's campaign. But most political observers have considered that claim unlikely to prevail.

Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, "is challenging the quality of the election," said John M. Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

But for the tribunal, Ackerman said, "the question is whether it was a legally valid election ... and today they gave clear signs they are not going to invalidate the election."

The tribunal said the smattering of administrative and mathematical errors in thousands of polling places were not acts of "bad faith" and did not merit throwing out the results of those polling places.

The jurists also rebuked the Lopez Obrador campaign, saying it had failed to provide concrete evidence of irregularities in the thousands of precincts where it had claimed fraud.

"The plaintiff says there are multiple irregularities in a large number of precincts or in this or that district," said Chief Magistrate Leonel Castillo, referring to the Lopez Obrador campaign.

"Well, that 'large number' is not enough. The law says you must specify evidence and facts."

Calderon said the ruling would "eliminate the insidious doubts" his opponents "want to spread among the citizenry."

Lopez Obrador said Monday's ruling was "offensive and unacceptable for millions of Mexicans."

"It represents not only a disgrace in the history of our country but also a violation of the constitutional order and a true coup d'etat," he told hundreds of followers in the capital city's main plaza, the Zocalo, where he has said he will hold a "national assembly" on Sept. 16, Mexico's Independence Day.

Political tension and uncertainty have gripped Mexico for weeks, with the PRD threatening to make the country ungovernable if Calderon becomes president.

This month, the court ordered about 4 million votes recounted but declined the PRD's demand to recount all 41 million votes.

Ackerman said he was surprised by the swiftness of Monday's decision and concerned that the tribunal did not provide more details of its findings.

"If it turns out that some of the PRD claims are right, then there will be some questions about how they are proceeding," Ackerman said.

Todd Eisenstadt, professor of government at the American University in Washington, pointed out that the judges were critical of the boilerplate, "cut and paste" method of the PRD complaint.

Those methods, he said, evoke an earlier era of Mexican electoral disputes, in which legal complaints were filed merely to justify street protests.

"The chances are increasingly remote that the electoral results will be overturned," Eisenstadt said.

"Everything indicates that [Calderon] will be imposed as president," said Leonel Cota, national leader of the PRD.

Outside the tribunal's headquarters, a small number of Lopez Obrador backers protested the ruling, chanting, "The people voted! Obrador won!"

Thousands of supporters of the leftist candidate have occupied much of this capital city's central avenue, Paseo de la Reforma, since July 30, tying up traffic and angering commuters. They have said they will remain in place during Mexico's patriotic celebrations on Sept. 15 and 16.

Fox has said he will defy the leftist protesters and deliver his traditional Independence Day "yell" in the Zocalo on the night of Sept. 15. A military parade is to follow on the next day.

On Monday, Fox made his strongest public condemnation yet of Lopez Obrador and the blockades.

"We can't allow personal ambitions to place at risk the most valuable thing the Mexican people have built -- our laws and institutions," the president said a meeting of fishermen in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

"Society has rejected time and again the path of violence, division and confrontation."

Calderon, a 44-year-old former energy minister under Fox and a longtime activist in the National Action Party, has kept a low profile in recent weeks.

On Monday, National Action Party leaders said the tribunal's ruling was a step forward for Mexico's democratic institutions.

"We have said from the beginning that we will respect the decision of the tribunal," said Juan Molinar Horcasitas, a party spokesman. "All the arguments that have been made to question the cleanliness of this election have been collapsing one by one."


Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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