Mexico's Election: Round Two?

With the recount lost, one presidential candidate calls for street protests. The health of a fledgling multiparty democracy still hangs in the balance

Editor's note: This is an updated version of a previously published story.

A tense, 24-hour-long recount of Mexico's disputed presidential vote produced a razor-thin margin on July 6 in favor of conservative, pro-business candidate Felipe Calderón, but leftist rival candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador immediately refused to accept the results. He said he would lodge a challenge through the Federal Electoral Tribunal and called on his supporters to gather on July 8 in Mexico City's historic central plaza to protest what he termed a "manipulation" of the election results.

With all of the 42.9 million votes counted, Calderón of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) was ahead by 240,026 votes, or by 0.57% of the vote. The final tally showed him with 35.88% of the vote, vs. 35.31% for López Obrador. Because Mexico has no provision for run-off elections, whichever candidate wins the most votes takes the presidency. The Mexican stock market, which had fallen 4% on July 5 over fears that Calderón's apparent victory might be reversed in a recount, rebounded 2.9% by the next afternoon.

López Obrador's decision to challenge the results and his planned public rally of supporters raise the level of political tension in Mexico and could cause ripples in the economy if the dispute drags on. The 52-year-old former mayor of Mexico City, who hails from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has a long reputation for staging public demonstrations to protest electoral setbacks and political attacks, so it came as little surprise that he called for a rally, which he called an "informational session," in which he will inform supporters about his legal challenge to the results.

"We won, and this is what we want to demonstrate in court," he said at a news conference on the morning of July 6. "It's evident that there was a manipulation of the PREP," the unofficial vote count by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), he said.

He repeated his demand for a full, vote-by-vote recount, although under Mexican electoral law, individual ballots are only recounted one by one when documentation submitted for that polling place contains errors. That is what happened on July 5, when the individual ballots of just a few polling places were retallied, while the bulk of the work involved retabulation of final results sent in from most of the 130,788 polling places nationwide.


  The tight race presents a serious challenge to Mexico's political system, which emerged from 71 years of one-party rule just six years ago with the election of President Vicente Fox of the PAN. There has been some concern that supporters of López Obrador, a fiery populist who has a history of organizing street protests, might paralyze the country with demonstrations. But Manuel Camacho, one of his top advisers, says that won't be the case.

"We are not going to be irresponsible," he said at a press conference on July 4. "We are going to go strictly through legal channels."

For decades, Mexicans knew, even as they deposited their vote in the ballot box, that the results were preordained. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) hung onto power for seven decades by paying people for their votes, packing voter lists with the names of dead people, sending party loyalists to vote multiple times, and stuffing ballot boxes with "tacos"—multiple votes rolled into one.


  When that failed, the party would sometimes send armed thugs to simply steal ballot boxes. The result: Mexico's presidents—who from 1929 to 2000 were from the PRI—routinely won with 90% or more of the vote.

In 1988, when the vote tally started turning against the PRI's candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, election officials suspended the count, saying the computing system had crashed. When it was restored a few hours later, Salinas once again was ahead of challenger Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Many Mexicans believe Cárdenas may have won that election, but he chose to concede, fearing post-electoral violence would target his supporters, and knowing the government-run electoral system was stacked against him.

That's no longer the case. In 1991, the IFE was created, and today is completely independent of government control and staffed by academics and citizen watchdogs. In the past decade, several billion dollars have been spent to create a tamper-proof voter registry and to distribute 71.3 million high-tech voter credentials—complete with hologram, fingerprint, and photograph—to citizens over the age of 18.


  When voters go to the polls, their faces and their voter-card photographs are compared to a printout with photographs to make sure the right person is voting. At all but a handful of the country's 130,788 voting places, representatives of the participating political parties watched on July 2 as the voting took place, and signed off on the tallies at day's end.

The process would seem to be tamper-proof, but López Obrador's camp believes that some manipulation could still be possible. One way that may be occurring: a hidden software program that could alter numbers as the tally proceeds.

The night of the election, IFE officials said the race was too close to call. But both candidates claimed victory, with Calderón basing his claim on the IFE's preliminary, unofficial vote count, called the "PREP", which was posted and updated hourly on the IFE's Web site, . Although the IFE says the PREP isn't the official election result, Calderón pointed to his reported 400,000-vote advantage as proof that he would win.


  That unofficial tally showed Calderón with 14,027,214 votes or 36.38% of the vote and López Obrador with 13,624,506 votes or 35.34%. Roberto Madrazo, candidate for the once-mighty PRI, got just 8.3 million votes, or 21.57%. But when an additional 2.6 million votes initially set aside for reverification were added, Calderón's margin reportedly shrank to 257,000 votes. Mexico had a voter turnout of 58.9%.

"Mexico wants this resolved clearly and fairly so that the millions of citizens who voted on Sunday will have their votes respected," Calderón said on July 5 as the vote recount began.

When López Obrador lost the 1994 gubernatorial race in the southern state of Tabasco, he and his supporters marched to Mexico City and camped out in the capital's main plaza, hoping to pressure the government to overturn the results. That vote was widely believed to be fraudulent, with the PRI victor spending an estimated 40 times the amount legally allowed on his campaign. But the PRI-run federal government in power at the time refused to do anything about it.

This time around, there is no apparent evidence of fraud, just a nail-biting photo finish to a contentious race. Yet, once again, Mexicans may witness massive street demonstrations, starting with the one planned for July 8. López Obrador defended his decision to take his dispute to the streets: "We will act responsibly, but at the same time we have to defend the will of the citizens," he said on July 6.

During the long presidential campaign, polls showed the two top candidates running neck-and-neck, but no one imagined the results would be so squeaky close. Many political analysts have urged Mexico's congress to draft legislation calling for run-off elections when a single candidate wins less than 50% of the popular vote. Perhaps the newly elected congress will now make that a priority. It would do a great deal to strengthen Mexico's multiparty democracy, which is just six years old.

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