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Mexican Electoral Judges Face Hard Test

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By JULIE WATSON
The Associated Press
Friday, July 28, 2006; 7:42 PM

MEXICO CITY -- The future of Mexico's young democracy lies in the hands of seven judges who have the final word on a disputed presidential election that has strained class divisions and threatened the nation's stability, with one candidate calling for millions to protest.

The magistrates _ including Mexico's first female district judge and a respected author on ethics and democracy _ have shown toughness and independence in thousands of electoral disputes, ruling against all three major parties.

But they have never faced a challenge like this. Mexicans are counting on them to find a peaceful solution to a battle between Felipe Calderon, the ruling party candidate backed by the business community, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a fiery populist.

An official count gave Calderon a lead of less than 0.6 percent. Despite the uncertainty, he said Friday he was setting up a committee to lay the groundwork for his administration.

Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party said it will testify Saturday at the first public hearings before the Federal Electoral Tribunal, beginning what will likely be a weekslong investigation into 364 complaints from the parties.

The judges, who must issue a ruling by Sept. 6, face three choices: declaring a winner, ordering a recount, or annulling the vote. Each could have grave consequences.

If the judges confirm Calderon won the July 2 election, Lopez Obrador is likely to reject the ruling and stage massive protests. The former Mexico City mayor has already held two mass demonstrations since the election, and has called for supporters to fill the capital's main Zocalo plaza Sunday.

If they order a recount, they risk weakening a law designed to combat fraud by prohibiting ballot boxes from being opened unless there is evidence of irregularities.

If they annul the elections, they will leave Mexico without a president-elect for more than a year, threatening the country's stability. No candidate has supported annulling the vote.

"These judges have impeccable credentials," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "They have stepped on everybody's toes in delivering more than 20,000 decisions. I think they will deliver a deliberate, fair and impartial judgment."

The judges are the country's highest paid public officials with salaries of about $415,000 a year to ensure no one can buy them off, and Mexican law gives them wide discretion. This will likely be the biggest decision of the 10-year term that ends in October for six of the seven magistrates. One was nominated in 2003.

Since the Senate confirmed them as the country's first electoral judges a decade ago, they have nullified 17 local, state and congressional elections. The biggest case involved the 2000 gubernatorial race in Lopez Obrador's home state of Tabasco, where the judges ruled that the ruling-party governor interfered.


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