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Mexico's Runner-Up Remains Unbowed

July 09, 2006|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — About a quarter of a million people chanting "Fraud! Fraud!" jammed Mexico City's central square Saturday to back leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's bid to overturn his narrow electoral defeat with court appeals and mass marches.

Lopez Obrador told the rowdy but peaceful crowd that he would present allegations of fraudulent vote tallies to the Federal Electoral Tribunal before tonight's deadline and demand a recount. He called for nationwide marches that would converge on Mexico City for another rally July 16 as the seven-judge panel weighed his appeal.

"There is convincing evidence that they took votes away from us," Lopez Obrador said. "We are certain that we won on July 2, and we are going to defend our victory."

Many in the crowd said they were ready for a fight if Lopez Obrador did not prevail. "To the death!" shouted Maria Irene Ramirez, a 53-year-old retired railroad worker from Hidalgo state.

Saturday's huge gathering, summoned on two days' notice, marks a critical point in what has been a peaceful challenge to the official result of the election, which gave governing-party candidate Felipe Calderon a winning margin of 244,000 votes out of 41 million cast.

Lopez Obrador, a fiery populist, has made a career of organizing mass demonstrations, several of which turned violent in the 1990s. That legacy and the tone of his statements last week have fed concern that the former Mexico City mayor could destabilize the country, undermining democratic institutions just six years after Mexico's emergence from decades of one-party rule.

But Saturday, he stopped short of calling for civil disobedience, eliciting groans from demonstrators when he asked them not to block highways.

"This is a peaceful movement, and we are never going to allow ourselves to be provoked by our adversaries," he said. "We have enough strength to validate our democracy using only peaceful demonstrations."

The crowd filled the Zocalo, the vast downtown square, and spilled into surrounding streets.

Mexico City police, subordinate to a government run by Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party, estimated the crowd at 280,000 people. Notimex, the semiofficial news agency of the conservative-led federal government, said slightly more than 200,000 people were there.

The challenger's party, known as the PRD, bused in loyalists from around the country. Organizers said they came from 18 states, some as far as Chiapas, on Mexico's southern border, and Southern Baja California.

They turned the Zocalo into a sea of yellow party flags and banners with slogans such as "No solution means revolution." They blew noisemakers, set off fireworks and sang the national anthem. One group carried a giant abacus, illustrating the demand, chanted incessantly by the crowd, for a recount -- "vote by vote, poll by poll."

Carmen Garcia, 38, a Puebla homemaker, was defiant.

"We're not going to let them take it away from him," she said. "We're going to fight with everything against all who don't want him in power. He will be our next president, whether they like it or not."

Most political analysts say Lopez Obrador's campaign faces an uphill battle.

The European Union, which monitored the vote, has said it found no evidence of major fraud or irregularity in the preliminary count July 2 or in the official count that ended Thursday.

Calderon, the candidate of President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, said Friday that he was not worried about a legal challenge to the election because irregularities found in the initial count were minor. He said he opposed a full recount.

Lopez Obrador was hedging his bets. Meeting with foreign journalists Saturday before the rally, he said his party planned to file a separate appeal to the Supreme Court later alleging that the entire election was unfair.

Top aides to Lopez Obrador called Friday for a recount of nearly half of the votes cast.

Officially, Calderon cannot be declared president-elect until the electoral tribunal decides his case. It has until Sept. 6 to declare a winner.

Lopez Obrador ridiculed his rival for acting like a president-elect, and rebuffed Calderon's offer to join a unity Cabinet. He called Calderon "an employee" of Mexico's upper classes and said a victory by his opponent would be "morally impossible."

"It's illogical, therefore, that there could be any agreement with him," he told journalists.

Later, at the rally, the challenger spoke confidently and forcefully. Wearing a dark suit and yellow tie, he addressed the crowd from a raised platform after being introduced by a party leader as "the only one who deserves to be called president."

Anticipating the case to be filed in the Supreme Court, Lopez Obrador called the Federal Electoral Institute, which conducted and counted the vote, "a battering ram" for Calderon. He alleged that the ruling party candidate was allowed to defame him in TV ads, exceed the legal limit for campaign spending and tap government funds for the campaign.

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