Mexican Presidential Rivals Both Claim Win in Tight Vote

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 3, 2006

MEXICO CITY, July 2 -- Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Felipe Calderón each claimed victory in Mexico's presidential election late Sunday night, even though the country's electoral commission said the race was so close it might not be able to announce the winner until Wednesday.

The dramatic announcements by López Obrador and Calderón shortly before midnight in Mexico City set up what is sure to be a furiously emotional battle over voting results in a nation that had spent tens of millions of dollars to ensure a fair and efficient election. Both candidates appeared on national television within minutes after Luis Carlos Ugalde, the head of the Federal Electoral Institute, announced that the difference between the two "was too narrow" for him to call the race.

López Obrador, a populist beloved by Mexico's poor, struck first, appearing before a bank of microphones and forcefully saying that "according to our information, we have won the presidency of Mexico." He said he would respect Mexico's institutions, but he also called on Mexico's institutions to respect the results. "We triumphed, we won," he said.

Calderón, a free-trade booster who promised continuity with President Vicente Fox's policies, appeared on television screens across Mexico moments later.

"The quick counts signal that we have won the presidential election," said Calderón, whose face was dappled with sweat.

Within minutes of Calderon's announcement, López Obrador was back on center stage, this time speaking to a huge crowd from a stage set up in the Zocalo, Mexico City's huge downtown square. "We will have all the documents to demonstrate that we won," he said, chopping the air with his right arm. "They are going to have to respect our triumph."

The dueling announcements came after exit polls had shown the race too close to call. Party leaders had urged the electoral commission to be cautious about releasing preliminary results, worried that a premature announcement could lead to unrest.

"Be careful . . . you could put the stability of the nation in danger," said Mariano Palacios Alcocer, head of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The PRI's candidate, Roberto Madrazo, consistently ran third in pre-election polls.

Frontrunners López Obrador and Calderón battled for the presidency in starkly different style. López Obrador charmed voters with a mix of charisma and New Deal-style public works proposals that he promised would create jobs for millions of poor Mexicans and stem illegal migration to the United States. Calderón ran a disciplined, dogged campaign focused on job creation and pledges that he would continue " Foxismo. "

Enthusiasm in both camps built through the evening as each predicted its candidate was winning. Hundreds of supporters gathered outside López Obrador's home in a modest apartment building in Mexico City's Copilco neighborhood. They mobbed each car that came out of the garage and chanted, "We're not moving until we're in the National Palace."

Calderón told reporters that he was "sure that this day will pass by in peace, because there is going to be great voter participation. . . . Mexico today is moving forward in its contemporary history."

With the debate over illegal immigration roiling the U.S. Congress, Mexico's presidential election has drawn unprecedented attention in the United States. López Obrador, the candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, generated the most unease among Americans because of his populist agenda, which includes renegotiating parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and left-leaning tendencies that have drawn comparisons to such adversaries of the Bush administration as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

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