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Mexico, the day after

July 07, 2006

WITH ALL 41 MILLION VOTES CAST in Sunday's presidential election in Mexico now counted, conservative candidate Felipe Calderon retained his narrow lead, beating out Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by about 244,000 votes, or 0.58 of a percentage point. Unless that result is overturned by a special electoral tribune, Calderon will take office in December. He is expected to offer continuity by sticking to the comparatively free-market, pro-U.S. posture of Vicente Fox, the outgoing president, but he will also face some of the same hurdles to his economic agenda posed by a deeply fractured Congress.

The vote tallies that emerged Sunday presented a sharply divided country. In the relatively more affluent states west and north of Mexico City -- with isolated exceptions such as Zacatecas -- the country was solidly in Calderon's camp. These areas have benefited from trade with the U.S. and have long harbored suspicions of overreaching Mexico City politicians. In many of these northern states, the runner-up to Calderon was not Lopez Obrador but the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate, Roberto Madrazo. Conversely, the governing center of Mexico City, and most of the poorer states to the east and south -- with Yucatan a notable exception -- went for Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City and the front-runner during much of the campaign, is clearly devastated by his narrow loss, which he is refusing to recognize. He is entirely within his rights to challenge the results before the electoral tribunal, which has until September to certify the vote counts conducted by the independent Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). The margin is so slim, Lopez Obrador and his supporters would be remiss not to seek out evidence of any and all irregularities.

But Lopez Obrador also should be mindful of his longer-term interests in these tense days. He will remain a contender in Mexican politics for years to come if he acts responsibly, but he runs the risk of losing credibility if he succumbs to the more radical elements of his party. Lopez Obrador is a longtime activist and, like his conservative adversaries within Calderon's party, has been victimized in the past by the fraudulent, undemocratic practices of the PRI, which long monopolized power in Mexico and which emerged as the real loser in Sunday's balloting.

Lopez Obrador would be miscalculating if he reacts to these results as if the country hadn't changed in the last 20 years. Unlike in the days of rampant PRI-orchestrated fraud, the young IFE, one of the most respected institutions in Mexico, is a truly independent entity that deployed almost 1 million citizens to manage Sunday's elections -- and that's not counting the political parties' own observers. Mexico has spent a fortune developing one of the most sophisticated election systems in the world, and Lopez Obrador will antagonize a vast majority of the population if he dismisses the entire process and insists that he won because, well, how could he lose?

The candidate should think twice before urging his supporters to take to the streets to preemptively denounce the final result. There's a proper legal venue for challenging the process. If Lopez Obrador is not respectful of the rules of democracy, he runs the risk of becoming this election's biggest fraud.

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