Mexico Girds for Legal Battle As Election Yields a Near Tie

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

MEXICO CITY, July 3 -- Felipe Calderón, a free-trade booster who wants to increase Mexico's presence in the global economy, held an ultra-thin lead of one percentage point over populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador in preliminary presidential election tallies released Monday.

Teams of lawyers are girding for a massive challenge of the results, threatening a crisis reminiscent of the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election. Legal experts and campaign strategists here say the winner of Sunday's ballot might not be officially declared for up to two months.

A preliminary, uncertified count by Mexico's electoral authority shows Calderón with 36.38 percent of the vote and López Obrador with 35.34 percent. But the electoral authority, which will begin its official count on Wednesday, will eventually cede control of the contest to a special elections court.

The elections court, known as the Federal Judicial Electoral Tribunal, has until Sept. 6 to certify a winner and has powers equivalent to those of the U.S. Supreme Court as the final arbiter of election disputes.

"This is going to take a long, long time," Manuel Camacho Solís, a top adviser to López Obrador, said in an interview late Monday. "Our perception is that there have been very important irregularities."

It was unclear how long it would take the electoral authority to complete its official count. But campaign strategists for López Obrador have already compiled an extensive list of alleged election law violations and irregularities that will most likely form the foundation of their legal challenge. The centerpiece is their contention that 3 million ballots are missing and have not been counted. They contend that the Calderón campaign offered access to social programs to win votes -- a practice that two independent studies prior to the election said was employed by all three major parties. And they also allege that votes for López Obrador were shaved off the rolls in his home state of Tabasco.

Camacho Solís said the López Obrador campaign has considered mobilizing peaceful demonstrations to protest the results but has not yet done so. The streets were mostly calm Monday here in the capital.

Arturo Sarukhan, a top adviser to Calderón, said his campaign's legal team would push for a quick declaration of a winner, arguing that the preliminary count shows Calderón ahead and that a group of European observers found no evidence of widespread fraud.

"We will seek closure Wednesday," Sarukhan said in an interview. "The streets should not be used to accomplish what the ballot boxes couldn't."

But the high level of rancor since polls closed Sunday afternoon make it "probable" that challenges will delay an official result for months, according to Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington.

"The test of the success of Mexico's democratic transition is going to come in the next few months," said Pastor, who monitored balloting Sunday in Mexico City.

Comparisons to Florida during the 2000 presidential election quagmire were rampant.

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