Mexico declares Calderon victor

Leftist rival vows to contest result


MEXICO CITY -- Felipe Calderon, a Harvard-educated conservative, was declared the winner of Mexico's presidential race yesterday, but the celebration was marred by his leftist rival's vow to contest the result in court and in the streets.

Calderon, who at 43 would be Mexico's youngest president, won the official vote count by half a percentage point, 243,934 votes out of nearly 41 million, over former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in a bitterly battled election.

At a victory party, Calderon called for the country to put aside its differences. But before the results were final, Lopez Obrador announced he was appealing to the federal electoral tribunal to prove the election was rigged in favor of the candidate of outgoing President Vicente Fox's ruling party.

For the first time since Sunday's vote, Lopez Obrador called out his passionate followers for a mass rally Saturday night in Mexico City's central square. He said it would be a peaceful "informative assembly," but it also will be a show of force to pressure electoral authorities.

"There's nothing to celebrate," a subdued Lopez Obrador said yesterday morning as the last votes were being tallied in a countrywide official count. "They know what they did."

The tribunal has until Aug. 31 to rule on Lopez Obrador's complaint and until Sept. 6 to officially name the next president. Unlike the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, which conducted the vote, the tribunal has authority to open every ballot box and count every vote, one of Lopez Obrador's primary demands.

The seven-judge tribunal has final say in any electoral matter. But most worrying to Mexicans are the uncertainty and instability that could hang over the country during the weeks the judges sift through evidence and deliberate.

A victory for Lopez Obrador would have been the first time that a true left-wing candidate came to power in Mexico. Many of his supporters regret not taking to the streets to overturn a former regime's alleged stealing of the 1988 presidential election from another leftist, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

Lopez Obrador is a master of deploying the masses. When he lost an allegedly rigged election for Tabasco state governor in 1994, he organized marches all the way to the capital to have the results reversed. He was ultimately unsuccessful, but the protests paralyzed the state government for months.

He also led protests at Tabasco's oil wells, demanding that the national oil company share the profits with the poor villagers who lived around them. Some of the protests ended in bloody melees with police.

After a muddy campaign in which Calderon labeled Lopez Obrador a "danger to Mexico," the country's financial markets rallied as Calderon's victory became assured yesterday.

It was a surprise victory for a candidate who was virtually unknown before the election campaign began in January and who had to beat out Fox's choice to be the standard-bearer of the National Action Party. He vowed to strike the political deals that Fox could not in order to move the country forward.

Upon announcing the winner, Luis Carlos Ugalde, the IFE president, said Sunday's election had been the most "clean and transparent ... ever seen in Mexico."

Calderon's victory came after a surprisingly fast, all-night tally of ballots by election officials and party representatives in 300 district offices across the nation.

In those meetings, Lopez Obrador supporters persuaded officials to open and recount a good number of ballot boxes, upping their candidates' count in some places. Calderon had a full percentage point lead, or nearly 400,000 votes, after a preliminary count that Lopez Obrador questioned on Sunday.

At District Office 23 in southern Mexico City, election officials said Lopez Obrador's tally rose by 8,000 votes after 70 of the district's 462 boxes were opened and counted. Calderon's total also rose by 3,000 votes.

The reason for the erroneous original count "is a question for another agency, the tribunal," said district IFE spokesman Gabino Camacho.

Such evidence of problems with the original vote tally could help Lopez Obrador make his case that only a full vote-by-vote recount of the ballots will prove who won. The IFE could open a ballot box only if it detected a problem with it.

Lopez Obrador said his team of lawyers would target their challenge at "the lack of transparency in the process, the lack of independence of the electoral agency and, specifically, the refusal to open the ballot boxes." He said Calderon's campaign was helped "not only by the apparatus of the state but the money of the state."

He also questioned why the IFE rushed through the official count Wednesday, when it took three days in 2000.

Hugh Dellios writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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