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ELECTION IN MEXICO

Calderon Prevails in Mexico; Rival Vows to Challenge Vote

A recount gives the presidency to the conservative, who wins by less than a percentage point. Lopez Obrador plans to go to court.

July 07, 2006|Hector Tobar and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — Conservative Felipe Calderon was officially declared the winner of Mexico's presidential election Thursday, outpolling leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by less than a percentage point after more than three days of vote counting.

Lopez Obrador immediately denounced irregularities in the official count and said he would launch an effort to overturn Calderon's victory before Mexico's Federal Electoral Tribunal. Legal analysts believe the seven-judge panel, which has exercised its power to overturn gubernatorial elections and order new votes, is likely to consider the case.

Lopez Obrador, formerly mayor of Mexico City, urged his followers to attend a massive rally Saturday in the capital's central square, the Zocalo, to protest the election result. Calderon called on his followers to make their own voices heard so their votes "are not thrown into the trash bin."

Calderon promised to work to unite Mexicans divided by one of the most bitter campaigns in the nation's political history, and said he would fight any court challenge to his victory.

"This is not my victory, it is the victory of Mexicans who decided by peaceful means who should be president," Calderon told a group of supporters. "I ask you to be vigilant because we're going to need each and every one of you to ensure that these votes are not thrown out."

With all 41 million of Sunday's votes tabulated, Calderon was the winner by about 244,000 ballots, or 0.58 of a percentage point, election officials said. Millions of Mexicans watched the conclusion of the count on television before dawn Thursday.

It was the second nail-biting, overnight tallying in less than a week.

A preliminary count completed Monday found the race too close to call.

That led to unexpected attention being paid to the usually unnoticed count of polling station reports that began at 8 a.m. Wednesday at 300 election offices across Mexico.

For 20 hours, the count showed Lopez Obrador narrowly in the lead. But shortly after 4 a.m. Thursday, with less than 4% of the stations left to be counted, Calderon squeaked ahead. For reasons that remained unclear, votes from many northern states where Calderon was strongest were tallied last.

Minutes later, the conservative candidate took the stage outside the headquarters of his National Action Party and claimed victory.

Analysts agree that Calderon, 43, won largely because of a sophisticated media campaign that warned voters of the "dangers" of a Lopez Obrador presidency.

Radio and television commercials charged that the charismatic former mayor was a demagogic populist who would bring Mexico to financial ruin if elected. The ads hit home with voters who remembered runaway inflation and monetary devaluation in the recent past.

Trailing badly in the polls as late as March, and dismissed by many pundits as a boring party loyalist, Calderon gradually gained ground on Lopez Obrador.

Calderon was still narrowly behind in the last set of polls, released June 23. But as his TV and radio campaign continued for five more days, he pulled off a dramatic comeback.

"It's what the country needed," said Alejandra Sofia, a Calderon supporter who joined the celebration at the PAN headquarters. "Felipe will get the country going. He really thinks of the poor, not like the other guy, who wants to hypnotize them."

Calderon's margin of victory was the narrowest of any Mexican presidential election.

Lopez Obrador has until Sunday to present a formal challenge to the Federal Electoral Tribunal. If he doesn't prevail, Calderon will take the oath of office Dec. 1.

As president, he would face a host of challenges in governing an impoverished country sharply and evenly divided over the issues of social justice and economic growth, which defined the campaign.

"Today the only thing that is clear is that there is conflict and tension in our society," said Sergio Aguayo, a writer and columnist here. "That's not good for democracy."

Lopez Obrador ran on the slogan "For the good of everyone, the poor first" and promised to open the public coffers to pay greater subsidies to those most in need.

For months, he was the prohibitive favorite to win, but his campaign faltered when for weeks he declined to air commercials responding to Calderon's attacks.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Lopez Obrador, 52, accused the government of outgoing President Vicente Fox and federal election authorities of tampering with the vote count.

Officials of Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party said they had ample evidence of irregularities in the count at thousands of polling stations.

"We will demonstrate that he did not win," Lopez Obrador said when asked about Calderon. "He should be ashamed to declare himself a winner. You can't aspire to be president of the republic if you don't have any moral authority."

The tribunal was created by Congress after a 1988 presidential election widely believed to have been stolen by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, then the dominant party.

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