MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's top electoral court announced yesterday that a partial recount of the votes in this country's disputed presidential election found no evidence of widespread fraud, a ruling that placed conservative Felipe Calderon tantalizingly close to victory.
In a 7-0 ruling, the Federal Electoral Tribunal said it had found only minor mathematical and administrative errors in the initial vote count of the July 2 election.
The tribunal said yesterday that its recount subtracted just 4,183 votes from Calderon's margin of victory, reducing it to about 240,000 over leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
The panel still could refuse to certify the election, in part based on Lopez Obrador's contention that President Vicente Fox and business groups illegally aided Calderon's campaign. Such a decision appeared unlikely, political observers said.
The tribunal said the smattering of administrative and mathematical errors in thousands of polling places were not acts of "bad faith" and did not merit throwing out the results of those polling places.
"This tribunal can say to the citizenry that their votes were counted fairly," said magistrate Fernando Ojesto. "We have followed the principle of one man, one vote, and of effective suffrage."
The panel also rebuked the Lopez Obrador campaign, saying it had failed to provide concrete evidence of irregularities in the thousands of challenged precincts where it had claimed fraud.
"The plaintiff says there are multiple irregularities in a large number of precincts or in this or that district," said tribunal President Leonel Castillo, referring to the Lopez Obrador campaign. "Well, that `large number' is not enough. The law says you must specify evidence and facts."
The tribunal has until Sept. 6 to name the winner of the election. Political tension and uncertainty have gripped Mexico for weeks, with Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, threatening to make the country ungovernable if Calderon becomes president.
Both candidates made only brief remarks about the ruling. Lopez Obrador told supporters "I was expecting it." Calderon said the ruling would "eliminate the insidious doubts" his opponents "want to spread among the citizenry."
Earlier this month, the court ordered about 4 million votes recounted but rejected the PRD's demand to recount all 41 million votes.
"The PRD is challenging the quality of the election," said John Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. But for the tribunal, Ackerman said, "The question is whether it was a legally valid election, and today they gave clear signs they are not going to invalidate the election."
Ackerman said he was surprised by the swiftness of the decision but concerned that the tribunal did not provide more details of its findings.
"If turns out that some of the PRD claims are right, then there will be some questions about how they are proceeding," Ackerman said.
Outside the tribunal's headquarters, a small number of Lopez Obrador backers protested the ruling, chanting, "The people voted! Obrador won!"
Thousands of supporters of the leftist candidate have occupied much of this capital city's central avenue, Paseo de la Reforma, since July 30, tying up traffic and enraging commuters. They have said they will remain in place during Mexico's patriotic celebrations Sept. 15 and 16.
Lopez Obrador said on Sunday that a Calderon presidency would amount to a "virtual coup d'etat" and called on his followers to form either a parallel government or a national movement of "peaceful civil disobedience."
Hundreds of Lopez Obrador's supporters also are occupying the city's main plaza, the Zocalo, where Lopez Obrador has said he will hold a "National Assembly" on Sept. 16, Mexico's Independence Day.
Yesterday, President Fox made his strongest public condemnation yet of Lopez Obrador and the blockades.
"We can't allow personal ambitions to place at risk the most valuable thing the Mexican people have built - our laws and institutions," Fox told a meeting of fishermen in the northern state of Tamaulipas. "Society has rejected time and again the path of violence, division and confrontation."
Calderon, a 44-year-old former energy minister under Fox and a longtime activist in the National Action Party, has kept a low profile in recent weeks.
Hictor Tobar and Sam Enriquez write for the Los Angeles Times.