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Confusion Grips Mexico Election

Both leading candidates claim victory, but officials say they won't sort things out until Wednesday. One camp alleges fraud, and the president calls for calm.

July 03, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's presidential vote was thrown into turmoil late Sunday, with both leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon claiming victory as election officials announced that the two men were separated by a razor-thin margin.

The Federal Election Institute said the result would not be known until Wednesday and that the margin between the two leading candidates would probably be less than a percentage point.

Electoral institute President Luis Carlos Ugalde announced that a "quick count" based on a sample of the votes from about 7% of the precincts had produced a result within the margin of error. Only a full count of the more than 40 million estimated votes could determine the winner, he said.

Lopez Obrador nonetheless announced victory, soon followed by Calderon. Both said late Sunday that their own data showed them winning.

The leftist candidate told supporters late Sunday that the government wanted to cheat him out of a larger victory. "I want to inform the people of Mexico that according to our calculations we have won the presidency," Lopez Obrador said. The final difference, he said, would be 500,000 votes.

Calderon appeared moments later, to say that numerous private exit polls showed he would win. "Today the trends announced by several firms ... show that we have won the presidential elections," he said.

Lopez Obrador supporters gathered in the Zocalo, this city's central square, and shouted, "Fraud! Fraud!" Calderon backers at his National Action Party headquarters chanted, "We did it! We did it."

President Vicente Fox called for calm.

"The citizens can have the full certainty, the confidence, that all the votes will be counted and respected," Fox said in a nationally televised address moments after election officials announced their finding.

Early this morning, with 66% of polling stations counted, Calderon's ever-narrowing margin over Lopez Obrador had fallen to 1.2 percentage points.

In the coming days, the muddied result is sure to provide a stern test for Mexico's democratic institutions, which are still struggling to emerge from a long history of corruption and authoritarianism.

Lopez Obrador's statements seemed to play to the worst fears of his supporters, who have long seen themselves as victims of political shenanigans.

"It's difficult to see the elections be manipulated," said Veronica Martinez, who had gathered with a crowd to celebrate what they believed was a Lopez Obrador victory. "This seems like something out of the past."

The election was seen by many as a referendum on the open-market policies embraced by Fox. Dozens of labor unions and leftist groups supported Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD.

Roberto Madrazo, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was expected to finish a distant third. His party, which monopolized power for 71 years, faced the prospect of becoming the smallest bloc in Congress.

More than 40 million people, or about 60% of the electorate, are believed to have cast ballots, according to the Federal Election Institute. More than 130,000 polling places had been set up, from within yards of the U.S. border in Tijuana, to Indian villages in Chiapas.

The campaign was one of the most acrimonious in Mexican history, with the three leading candidates spending millions on television and radio commercials attacking their opponents.

"I have to vote because it's a duty," said Cleofas Chavez Rodriguez, a 66-year-old resident of San Salvador Atenco, just outside of this capital city. "Of the three, none of them convinced me because they attacked each other so much."

Calderon, 43, ran as the candidate who would best continue economic policies initiated by Fox, who is limited by the constitution to a single, six-year term.

Lopez Obrador, 52, the charismatic former mayor of Mexico City, held a slight lead in most polls. He promised to expand subsidies to the needy and to stimulate the economy with public works projects and reductions in fuel prices.

The campaign slogan of Lopez Obrador's leftist coalition was a succinct, populist message: "For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First."

"We agree a lot with Lopez Obrador because he fights for the poor and the marginalized," said Manuel de Jesus De Lucio, a 50-year-old farmer who cast his vote in a polling booth in an open field in Mexico state.

If Lopez Obrador wins, Mexico would become the latest in a series of Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Chile, to elect left-of-center presidents in recent years.

Lopez Obrador promised to renegotiate certain provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement that opened Mexican markets to U.S. and Canadian imports, and his victory could dramatically alter this country's relationship with the U.S.

Nationwide, only eight polling places failed to open, the best performance ever by Mexico's electoral system, officials said.

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