Mexico Watches as Votes Are Tallied

An Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador supporter demonstrates at the Federal Electoral Institute.
An Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador supporter demonstrates at the Federal Electoral Institute. (By Guillermo Arias -- Associated Press)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 6, 2006

MEXICO CITY, July 5 -- Election supervisors across Mexico began scrutinizing tightly sealed packets of vote tallies collected from more than 130,000 polling places in an effort to bring order to a tumultuous presidential race.

The painstaking count -- a dull procedure in a normal election year -- was infused with drama as all of Mexico waited to find out whether Felipe Calderón would retain the minuscule lead he held over Andrés Manuel López Obrador after preliminary results were announced Monday and Tuesday. The last preliminary count showed Calderón ahead of López Obrador by 257,000 votes -- 0.64 percent of more than 38 million ballots.

Mexico has been riven by tension over the outcome of the race, which pitted López Obrador, a populist, against Calderón, who promised continuity with the policies of the outgoing president, Vicente Fox. López Obrador has said "the stability of the country" depends on the count and has threatened to mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters in street protests.

Newspaper Web sites kept a running count of the tabulations Wednesday, and the information zinged across the capital via text messages and phone calls. During a reception at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City, a woman shouldered into a group chatting near the refreshments table and breathlessly announced, "López Obrador is ahead by two points." Moments later, across the room, a man confided to a friend, "Calderón's ahead now."

Throughout the day, election supervisors in 300 vote-collection centers were poring over tally sheets from each polling place alongside representatives of the three major political parties: Calderón's National Action Party, or PAN; López Obrador's Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD; and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose candidate, Roberto Madrazo, has conceded.

Luis Carlos Ugalde, head of the Federal Electoral Institute, which is tabulating the results, said Wednesday that he was unsure how long the count would take. The process is complicated by a law that allows for the contents of the vote packets to be opened only if the tally sheets, or the packages, appear to have been tampered with or damaged. Such packets are then sliced open and a vote-by-vote count is conducted.

This has enraged López Obrador and his supporters, who have alleged that 51,900 polling places had "grave inconsistencies" and that 18,600 ended up with more votes than the number of ballots given to the polling place. They want a vote-by-vote count of every packet. But Ugalde said Wednesday that opening all the packets would amount to a violation of law that would annul the results of not only the presidential race but also thousands of other races, including contests for the legislature and a host of governorships.

The count, which a special elections court has until Sept. 6 to certify or reject, will continue through the night, Ugalde said. He has told his employees that they must find a replacement to fill their seats if they want to go the bathroom.

Calderón strategist Arturo Sarukhan said in an interview, "I'm still betting that the tally sheets will confirm that Felipe won."

Outside the Federal Electoral Institute, dozens of demonstrators waved López Obrador signs and chanted: "This is fraud. He won."

Special correspondent Gabriela Granados Martinez contributed to this report.

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