Mexican Courts Decide if Calderon Winner

The Associated Press
Friday, July 7, 2006; 9:05 PM

MEXICO CITY -- The ballots have been cast and counted. But Felipe Calderon isn't Mexico's president-elect until the nation's highest electoral court says so.

The independent agency that ran Sunday's election added up more than 41 million votes and declared that Calderon won the most: 240,000 more than rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

But this agency has no legal authority to declare a winner.

Under Mexico's complex election laws, Calderon won't have won until the Federal Electoral Tribunal certifies the count. And that's not a sure thing: the widely respected tribunal has overturned two gubernatorial races in recent years, both for meddling by the ruling party.

Disgruntled candidates have gone to court to dispute election results in many countries _ the U.S. presidential race won by George W. Bush in 2000 is a famous example.

But Mexico, where electoral disputes are almost a tradition, makes the courts part of the process right from the start. It's part of an elaborate system designed to eliminate the fraud that was once nearly universal. Once the votes are officially counted, each party has four days to file challenges with the Electoral Tribunal.

The tribunal's seven magistrates then consider the evidence in weeks of hearings, deciding whether individual ballot boxes were stuffed, whether particular voters were intimidated, whether candidates violated spending limits or bought votes.

Mexico's election law says the court must decide all of that by Aug. 31. The magistrates then add up the votes that have survived challenges and declare a winner by Sept. 6, a decision that can't be appealed. The new president is inaugurated on Dec. 1.

Even in the last presidential election, when Vicente Fox had a commanding lead and his opponents quickly conceded defeat, the tribunal needed more than a month to declare him president-elect.

This year's race is a squeaker and Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, has alleged that Calderon's National Action Party benefited from irregularities at about 50,000 polling places, setting the stage for a complex, emotional battle before the court.

At least one key Lopez Obrador aide says he's ready to trust the tribunal, known by its Spanish initials as the TRIFE.

"It is the final arbiter, and it would be a tragedy if it wasn't impartial," said Manuel Camacho, a top campaign aide to Lopez Obrador. "The PRD has confidence in the TRIFE."

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