2 sides brace for fight after tight Mexico election

Posted in Other | 04-Jul-06 | Author: James C. McKinley Jr. and Ging| Source: International Herald Tribune

Felipe Calderón, the conservative candidate from the ruling National Action Party, Monday called on his opponent to admit defeat.
Felipe Calderón, the conservative candidate from the ruling National Action Party, Monday called on his opponent to admit defeat.
Mexico's two leading candidates positioned themselves for a fight today after electoral authorities said that Sunday's presidential election was so close that it would take at least two days to carefully sift the returns.

Unofficial results from more than 98 percent of all polling places showed Felipe Calderón, the fiscal conservative backed by big business, with a one-point lead over Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the fiery antipoverty crusader whose campaign championed the cause of the country's poor.

Several political and financial analysts who are experts on Mexico said they believed Mr. Calderón's 384,000-vote lead, narrow as it was, was unlikely to be reversed, with only about 800,000 more votes to be tallied.

In the meantime, the way the candidates manage themselves and their supporters will determine whether or not this stalemate weakens or strengthens Mexico's young democracy.

After a tumultuous night in which both candidates claimed victory and held rowdy celebrations, conflicting feelings of concern rippled across a nation that is averse to political violence and that has lived through decades of electoral fraud.

Some Calderón supporters feared that Mr. López Obrador would refuse to accept final results if they showed he had lost and incite unrest. On the other side, some leftists worried the government would try to rob Mr. López Obrador of the presidency. Mr. Calderón belongs to the National Action Party of President Vicente Fox, and was the sitting president's choice to succeed him.

Both candidates fed those worries in television appearances this morning. Mr. López Obrador urged his supporters to "have patience," and said he would always "act responsibly." But he said he would accept defeat only if his own review of results showed he had lost. He did not rule out calling his supporters for mass marches and other acts of civil disobedience.

"If we lost the election, I will recognize it," he said. "But if I won, even by one vote, I am going to defend that triumph."

Mr. Calderón, appearing on national television a short while later, declared the preliminary results showed clearly that he had won and that a few more days of counting would not change that. He called on his opponent to admit defeat and "begin a time of reconciliation and unity among Mexicans."

"I can assure all Mexicans that I won the elections and I have the papers in hand," he said, brandishing the preliminary results. "It's time to recognize the result," he added. "It's not my triumph. It's the triumph of the people who voted."

Election officials said they would not have an official result until Wednesday at the earliest, when local electoral boards in 300 districts will scrutinize and recount the official tallies from each of 130,000 polling places. Those results will be passed on to the state-level election officials, then sent to Federal Electoral Institute headquarters, who in turn will certify them and hand them over to a special electoral court on Sunday for approval.

If one of the candidates contests the results before the tribunal, the legal wrangling over votes could lead to a recount in some districts or the annulment of some voters. Challenges could take weeks, even months. By law, the court must declare a winner by Sept. 6.

Gaston Azcarraga, the president of an influential group of the country's top business leaders, predicted that Mexico was up to the challenge the uncertainty presented and expressed confidence in the election commission to credibly resolve the contest. He dismissed the competing claims of victory by the two candidates as "human nature" and argued that Mexico was far from crisis.

"This was an incredibly competitive election," said Mr. Azcarraga, who heads Grupo Posadas, Latin America's largest hotel company. "But we can count on a very solid institution in the IFE," as the election commission is known,

"Whoever wins," he said, "we Mexicans are all in this boat together. We have to agree to row together."

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist candidate from the Democratic Revolutionary Party, has questioned the early election results.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist candidate from the Democratic Revolutionary Party, has questioned the early election results.
As has been the case throughout the race, public attention is focused on Mr. López Obrador, who lost a race once before, in 1994 for governor of Tabasco State, in an election marred by complaints of vote-buying and fraud.

Political analysts like Robert Pastor of American University said the history of Mr. López Obrador's Democratic Revolutionary Party and his own scrappy political instincts could easily lead him to take this fight to the streets.

Others, like Pamela Starr, a Latin America expert for the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, said she suspected that Mr. López Obrador had learned from the election that his confrontational political style frightened away supporters in a country where people are overwhelmingly poor, but hold conservative, middle-class sensibilities.

Ms. Starr said she suspected Mr. López Obrador to "make a lot of noise" in the coming days, but to quickly concede defeat.

"But there is a big caveat here," she said. "I think López Obrador will accept defeat. But the radical wing of his party may not."

The Revolutionary Democratic Party has come close to the presidency once before. In 1988, its candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of one of this country's most beloved late presidents, lost the presidency to Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or P.R.I.

In that race, the computers whose tallies showed Mr. Cardenas with a comfortable lead over Mr. Salinas mysteriously blacked out, and when they came back on line they showed Mr. Salinas in the lead.

Rather that contest the results, Mr. Cardenas conceded to his opponent. Dan Lund, a pollster who does work for the Democratic Revolutionary Party, said hard feelings from that moment still hang over the party.

Mr. López Obrador has made clear he feels personally persecuted by the political establishment, with some cause. Last year, he orchestrated huge protests after his opponents in the National Action Party and the P.R.I. attempted to knock him off the ballot with a legal challenge over a minor land dispute.

"Over all, this society has a huge postponed poverty agenda, and López Obrador speaks for these people," Mr. Lund said. "It turns out, they are not a clear majority, but still he speaks for them, and if he backs down without defending their votes, he runs the risk of pushing those people out of the electoral arena into other options that are not good for anyone."

Late this afternoon, Mr. López Obrador met with his closest political advisers to discuss strategy. One adviser, who asked not to be identified, said the leftist candidate was not convinced he had lost.

Discrepancies between exit polls and the unofficial returns had raised many questions. The campaign has also received reports of irregularities at many polling places that Mr. López Obrador wants investigated.

Mr. Calderón's strategy seemed to be to declare victory and force Mr. López Obrador into the uncomfortable position of having to challenge the results. If the former mayor of Mexico City mounts marches to protest the outcome of the election, he confirms Mr. Calderón's accusation that he is a rabble-rouser who does not respect democratic institutions.

"I don't really see in millions of Mexicans a desire to take the streets, when they already took the polls as a democratic option," Josefina Vazquez Mota, a close campaign adviser to Mr. Calderón, said.