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It Was a Long Night in Mexico

July 04, 2006|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's vow to challenge his apparent defeat in the Mexican presidential race has roots in two fraud-tainted electoral setbacks that have shaped his leftist party and now weigh heavily on the country's young democracy.

In the first, party founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas lost the 1988 presidential election and refrained from rallying supporters into the streets. But popular outrage over the vote, widely perceived as rigged, helped spur a peaceful movement that eventually toppled the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in 2000, after decades of autocratic rule.

In the second, the PRI cheated Lopez Obrador in the 1994 Tabasco governor's race. But his futile protest shut down the state's oil wells and led to violent clashes with police, in which the candidate was clubbed on the head and photographed with a bloody shirt.

That combative legacy, with its peaceful and violent scenarios, hung over Mexico on Monday as its cleaned-up electoral institutions grappled with their most serious crisis.

Lopez Obrador, trailing ruling-party candidate Felipe Calderon by 1 percentage point with 98% of the vote counted, said his Democratic Revolution Party would use every legal means to challenge what he called irregularities, manipulation and the alleged disappearance of as many as 3 million ballots.

But he declined to rule out mobilizing his enraged supporters if the system thwarted him again.

The threat of disorder was evident throughout a long Sunday night of brinkmanship, in which the two candidates claimed victory right after the polls closed. Few of Lopez Obrador's critics expected him to concede a close race, and few supporters were ready to accept any explanation of defeat except fraud.

The most dramatic moment came late Sunday as cars flying banners of Lopez Obrador's party, known as the PRD, sped toward the Zocalo, Mexico City's vast central plaza. Party faithful danced in a drizzle, awaiting an announcement of their candidate's victory.

Instead, the head of Mexico's electoral institute appeared on the giant TV screen at 11 p.m. and termed Sunday's presidential election too close to call.

"Fraud! Fraud!" came the plaza's response, muffling his words. Life drained from the party, the cumbia band packed up its instruments, and the crowd of nearly 20,000 began to melt away.

But the few thousand who stuck around for an hour became electrified when Lopez Obrador showed up.

"We are not going permit them to conceal the election result!" the candidate boomed. "We will be watching very closely to make sure our triumph is respected."

It was only six years ago that Mexicans held their first free vote for a president and threw out the PRI by electing Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

But Lopez Obrador and the PRD remained wary of elections, even as the new independent electoral institute developed sophisticated controls against fraud. Their suspicions deepened in 2003 when the PRI and Fox's party excluded PRD candidates from the electoral body's leadership council.

Neutral observers worried that by questioning the electoral body's neutrality and presenting himself during the campaign as a president in waiting, Lopez Obrador was setting the stage for a postelection conflict that could make the country impossible to govern.

In the hours after the election, Mexico's democratic civility seemed strained to the limit.

At midafternoon Sunday, about three hours before the polls closed, Lopez Obrador's top aides were stunned to learn that their internal polls, which had given their candidate a 10-percentage-point lead during much of the campaign, had been wildly misleading.

Exit polls done for the PRD showed him winning by just 1.3 points, about 500,000 votes. Independent exit polls were about as close, and some favored his rival. At the Mexico City hotel where the PRD campaign staff was gathered, the buoyant mood collapsed. The candidate, due to arrive at 3 p.m., sequestered himself at home for another five hours.

"It was unbelievable," said Luis Mandoke, a filmmaker who spent the night with other PRD campaign workers staring tensely at TV screens. "We were wondering, 'What happened to our lead?' My first thought was, a lot of those polls are being manipulated."

Five miles across town at Calderon's headquarters, where his managers had expected a close race, the mood was cautiously upbeat. Police closed off the surrounding streets as PAN activists set up a big tent, anticipating a celebration in the rain.

At 8 p.m. Mexico City time, when the last polls closed in Baja California, electoral institute president Luis Carlos Ugalde went on television to warn against premature claims of victory. He would be back on the air at 11 with the institute's count to declare an unofficial winner, he said.

Officials of the electoral panel and Fox's government said they were worried that rival claims of victory could undermine the panel's authority and escalate into disorder.

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