Mexican Runner-Up Sees Years Of Protest

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 14, 2006

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 -- Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist runner-up in Mexico's disputed presidential election, said Sunday that the protests that have shackled this city's downtown could last for years even though a partial recount appears to be confirming his narrow loss.

The recount, which was expected to end late Sunday or early Monday, has barely budged the 244,000-vote, or half-percentage-point, lead of Felipe Calderón, the business-backed candidate from outgoing President Vicente Fox's National Action Party. Still, López Obrador told followers Sunday that enough evidence of irregularities has been unearthed to warrant an annulment of votes cast in 5,000 of Mexico's 130,000 polling places.

"We will not accept an illegitimate government and a counterfeit president," López Obrador told supporters in Mexico City's downtown square, the Zocalo.

López Obrador's battle to overturn the results of the July 2 election has recently shown signs of losing momentum. His crowds have been dwindling, dropping from estimates of more than a million to as few as 20,000 on Sunday.

There also have been growing complaints about the monumental inconveniences caused by protest encampments on one of Mexico City's principal arteries, Reforma Avenue, where thousands of his followers have been sleeping, playing soccer and chanting for two weeks. Some political analysts say López Obrador is certain to experience a backlash as more hotels near the encampments lay off workers who are not needed because of cancellations by visitors scared away by the demonstrations, which have been peaceful.

López Obrador's call for an annulment represents a shift in strategy after demanding a full recount for more than a month. A special elections court rejected his request for a full recount Aug. 5 and instead ordered a recount of ballots cast in 9 percent of polling places.

The opposing sides have waged a spin war since the recount began last Wednesday. López Obrador, of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, and his top lieutenants say the recount has confirmed their fraud suspicions and exposed the "disappearance" of 80,000 ballots. Arturo Sarukhan, a top Calderón adviser, painted a different picture in an interview Sunday, saying the recount revealed no changes in more than 90 percent of the recounted polling places.

While arguing over the numbers, the two sides have accused each other of undermining a democratic system still finding its footing six years after the end of one-party rule.

López Obrador told supporters Sunday that "the objective of our movement is to save the democracy." He has often said that Calderón's opposition to a full recount undercuts Mexican democracy.

Sarukhan countered that López Obrador's call for more protests "underscores that this has never been about protecting democracy. At the end of the day, it's his way or the highway."

Mexico's special electoral court has until Sept. 6 to certify a winner, but López Obrador is already looking ahead to battles well beyond that date. He said Sunday that if Mexico tries to install Calderón as president, he and his followers will be there to block the way.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company