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In Mexico, Strains Along Democracy's Path

Supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador demand a vote recount during a protest at Mexico City's stock exchange.
Supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador demand a vote recount during a protest at Mexico City's stock exchange. (By Alexandre Meneghini -- Associated Press)

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Cárdenas, the left-leaning candidate who lost in 1988 after a suspicious election night computer failure, conceded following a brief attempt to use street protests to force a reevaluation of the results. He had no choice, said Manuel Camacho Solís, a top aide to the winning candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Camacho Solís, who later switched parties and has become a top López Obrador adviser, is now viewing an election crisis from the opposite side -- the one declared the loser.

"It was a completely different world in 1988," Camacho Solís said in an interview. "There was no IFE, we didn't have an open press, the United States government was supportive of the PRI; so was [Cuban President Fidel] Castro. The government was authoritarian, it controlled everything."

Faced with those obstacles, Cárdenas called off demonstrations, averting unrest and earning an enduring reputation for statesmanship.

López Obrador and his followers have something Cárdenas never had, Camacho Solís said: real hope that someone in authority, magistrates of an electoral court, will listen. But that sense of hope could vanish in an instant, he said, if López Obrador's core supporters in Mexico City's poorest neighborhoods think they aren't getting a fair hearing from the court.

"What's at risk now is our democratic progress backsliding," he said. "The society could become ungovernable. The choice is simple: recount or disorder."

Calderón's campaign advisers argue that a recount is unnecessary, and they accuse López Obrador of being a provocateur. In a recent television interview, López Obrador called his opponents "fascists" and suggested that subliminal messages were inserted by his opponents in potato chip and juice advertisements.

"One of the most important success stories of Mexico has been the normalizing of democratic elections," Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican consul general in New York and a Calderón adviser, said in an interview. "We have to make sure that the whims of one man, of one party, don't undermine the credibility of that system."

Top Calderón campaign officials concede that they have been losing the public relations war with López Obrador since both candidates claimed victory on election night. López Obrador's recount message is concise and catchy: "Vote by vote, polling place by polling place."

Calderón's pitch, which will form the basis of his legal argument against a recount, is more nuanced and doesn't fit neatly into a slogan. And his message has been less consistent.

Calderón argues that Mexican law allows recounts of polling places only where clear inconsistencies have been found. The vote-by-vote count, he says, already took place on election day. And the count was conducted, he says, by citizen poll workers who were given authority under election reforms that took vote-counting power away from the government.

The New York Times and the British newspaper, the Financial Times, have each called for a recount, as has the human rights group Global Exchange, which sent election observer teams to Mexico. Calderón has been courting influential publications in phone calls, and his top aides have been flying to the United States to plead his case to editorial boards and financial markets.

"I won the election. It's very important for people to know that," Calderón said in a recent telephone call to a top Washington Post editor. "The real dilemma is not whether the election was free and fair. The real dilemma is whether Mexico is going to solve these issues through mobilization in the streets or by following our laws and institutions."

López Obrador and his legal team now hold news conferences almost every day, each featuring new fraud allegations or new takes on old allegations. But some of the claims have not held up to scrutiny, raising questions among many observers about the strength of his case. At one polling place, a representative from López Obrador's own party rebutted the candidate's claims that a video showed a man there illegally stuffing a ballot box.

The tribunal that will decide the case is described as activist by many Mexican legal scholars. It has been more inclined to annul elections than to order recounts.

The magistrates are poring over 38 boxes of evidence presented by López Obrador. The court has shifted to 18-hour daily schedules to meet its Sept. 6 deadline. Out on the sidewalk, protesters keep vigil. They squint upward at the office wing of the court complex, which has balconies covered with potted plants, giving the place the appearance of an upscale apartment building.

The magistrates at work inside are limited to 10-year terms, and all but one -- a replacement for a magistrate who died -- is hearing the biggest case of his career as he prepares to step down. When the new president takes office in December, six of the magistrates who put him there, members of the first electoral tribunal of Mexico's young democracy, will already be gone.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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