08 July 2006

Calderon wins by slim margin; opponent promises to contest result

Photograph by : F. Sanchez


Four days after Mexicans cast ballots in the presidential election, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) finally declared National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon the winner, but his opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), refused to acknowledge defeat and vowed to keep fighting. Calderon received 35.88 percent of the votes, slightly more than Lopez Obrador, who trailed with 35.31 percent. A margin of 236,006 votes separated the two candidates. Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) candidate Roberto Madrazo garnered only 22.27-percent support, leaving question marks about his once-mighty party's future.

Despite trailing after the early returns, a defiant Lopez Obrador, remarked on Sunday night, "We have information that says we won the presidency of the Republic." He also alleged without offering proof that his party led by 500,000 votes.

Calderon also declared victory Sunday night and pledged to abide by the final IFE outcome. The majority of exit polls released after the voting ended projected a Calderon victory.

The contest's close outcome and unsubstantiated accusations of electoral impropriety could plunge the nation into social chaos and damage Mexico's young democracy if aggrieved PRD supporters, conscious of their party's brushes with fraud in previous votes - most notably 1988, when a computer crash wiped out left-leaning candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' lead - take to the streets, alleging their candidate fell victim to election irregularities. Lopez Obrador assailed the IFE, alleging both fraud and manipulation.

The IFE originally planned on announcing a winner on Sunday at 11 p.m. - three hours after the last polling stations closed, basing the outcome on the results of a conteo rapido (quick count), a survey of early election outcomes from across the Republic. Due to the tightness of the race, the IFE deferred, saying it would make an announcement on Wednesday. The final results came out on Thursday afternoon. The IFE's Web-based results list (PREP) originally gave Calderon a scant one-percentage-point lead, which narrowed as contested ballots were counted. After recounting the actas (poll results), the IFE again put Calderon ahead by 0.57 percentage points.

Lopez Obrador rejected the outcome and demanded a vote-by-vote recount. He promised to make a legal complaint - something allowed by IFE rules - and beckoned supporters to Mexico City's Zocalo for a Saturday rally, where the PRD candidate would give an
"informe" (update).

"We can't accept these results," he told a press conference on Thursday morning.

"No one can declare himself the winner."

The PRD campaign, however, splashed Lopez Obrador's Web site with presidential colors. (Calderon's campaign followed suit.) Lopez Obrador supporters gathered outside the IFE offices in Mexico City as the acta count took place. Some brandished signs reading, "Vote by vote, poll by poll, no to the fraud."

Lopez Obrador's reaction hardly surprised some observers.

"In his view, he's a victim of a system that's rotten to the core," said George Grayson, a government professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, who wrote a critical biography of the PRD candidate titled, "Mesias Mexicano" (Mexican Messiah).

"As a man with messianic tendencies, Lopez Obrador believes that he incarnates the will of the people. Thus he could not have lost; there had to be fraud."

After recounting the actas, IFE President Luis Carlos Ugalde said his organization had done its job and candidates were free to appeal to a seven-judge electoral tribunal, which would render a decision before September 6. He rejected allegations of manipulation, saying, "Doubting the IFE is doubting the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans" who worked during the election.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the PRD's founder who never endorsed his party's candidate, recently called the IFE, "Trustworthy."

Calderon called on the IFE to certify the vote quickly. He also promised to lead a coalition government, recognizing his narrow lead and lack of a strong mandate. (In comparison, President Vicente Fox won 43 percent support in 2000.)

Despite the close outcome, voting at Mexico's more than 130,000 casillas (voting stations) generally went smoothly, although some special stations, which served out-of-area voters, ran out of ballots. Two observers were shot dead in Guerrero state, but the murders were declared unrelated to the election. Slightly more than 59 percent of Mexico's approximately 71 million eligible voters participated - a lower turnout than in 2000.

Along with electing a new president, voters renewed the entire 500-seat Congress and 128-seat Senate. The PAN captured the most seats in both houses, but fell well short of obtaining majorities. (Eight parties won congressional seats). Both the PAN and PRD increased their representation at the expense of the PRI, which only nine years ago held a majority in both chambers.

Two minor parties, the Nueva Alianza and the Alternativa, both passed the two-percent threshold necessary to stay registered with the IFE. Many Mexicans scribbled a name in the write-in candidate category on their ballot; according to an IFE poll chief in Zapopan, deceased movie stars were a popular choice.

The results revealed a badly divided nation. The PRD swept Mexico City - also the site of local elections - and southern Mexico, where incomes are lower. The PAN
decisively took its heartland, the more industrial and prosperous northern and western states. The PRI received support from all regions of the country, but failed to claim a majority of the vote in even a single state.

Jalisco, one of the Republic's most conservative states, overwhelmingly backed the PAN, which captured almost half of the vote.

"There's low inflation and the country is economically stable, unlike past years," said Jaime Quesada, a Guadalajara cab driver, explaining why he voted PAN

"I like President Fox ... we live in a better country than before," said Socorro Reynosa, 73, who voted for the PAN at a polling station in the upscale Providencia neighborhood.

"I want my grandchildren to live in a First World country."

Others sounded less upbeat about their selection.

"I voted for the least-worst one," boasted orange juice vendor Rafael Hernandez, who also opted for PAN.

"The country's not really getting ahead, but it's also not going backwards."

He also expressed dismay with Lopez Obrador's attacks on the IFE and the election outcome.

"That guy has a screw loose," he said Thursday morning.

"One day he says he supports the IFE, but when the results don't go his way he protests."

Obrador has a history of protesting; he once led a march from Tabasco state to the capital after losing a scandal-plagued governor's race.

Grupo Reforma columnist Sergio Sarmiento observed, "If Lopez Obrador wins in the count started (Wednesday) the country is quiet.

"The situation could be totally different if Calderon wins. Lopez Obrador seems to be a candidate unable of accepting a defeat."

It could be September before all of the election appeals are exhausted. Mexico's long presidential transition process - a hold over from the days of PRI rule - could ironically prove beneficial. The new president assumes office in early December.

From the Guadalajara Reporter

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