Close Election Tests Mexico's Democracy

The Associated Press
Monday, August 21, 2006; 7:14 PM

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico -- Mexico, mired for nearly two months in a presidential election dispute, woke up Monday to a disputed governor's vote in the country's poorest state.

In Sunday's Chiapas state race, the candidate backed by the President Vicente Fox's party, Jose Antonio Aguilar Bodegas, vowed to contest the vote if he loses to the main leftist party.

Meanwhile, supporters of leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have clogged the heart of Mexico City with protest camps to demand a recount of the July 2 presidential election.

Preliminary results in southern Chiapas state showed little more than 2,000 votes separating the two candidates.

With 94 percent of 4,761 polling places counted, Juan Sabines of Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, was leading with 48.39 percent, or 517,129 votes. Aguilar had 48.17 percent, or 514,743 votes.

Both claimed victory late Sunday and held celebrations within blocks of each other _ as if there were a clear winner.

Aguilar, a 56-year-old lawyer and former federal senator, is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, but also is backed by Fox's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, which formed a last-minute alliance with the PRI to try to defeat Sabines.

Margarita Moya, a spokeswoman for the state's electoral institute, said officials expected to finish the preliminary count Monday but would not announce a winner until late in the week. The institute has seven days to formally announce a governor-elect.

Aguilar told reporters early Monday that his party's own tallies showed he had won by more than 5,000 votes. He said his party had found irregularities with 10,000 votes, and planned to file complaints with electoral officials, and possibly Mexico's Federal Electoral Tribunal if he is not declared governor-elect.

"The election was extremely tainted," he said, echoing similar claims made by Lopez Obrador against the National Action Party in the presidential election.

The federal tribunal's seven judges are currently reviewing a partial recount of the disputed July 2 presidential race in which National Action candidate Felipe Calderon had a slight advantage of about 240,000 votes, or less than 1 percent, over Lopez Obrador. The tribunal has until Sept. 6 to announce a president-elect or annul the election.

Sabines, meanwhile, welcomed such scrutiny, saying he had no doubts about his victory.

"The results are in my hand," the former Tuxtla Gutierrez mayor told The Associated Press.

He vowed to unify Chiapas, home to the 1994 Zapatista rebel uprising, where many feared the election would exacerbate the national political crisis that has erupted in the wake of the presidential election.

Miguel Ballinas, a PAN spokesman in Chiapas, said the party will support Aguilar in his fight for the governorship through legal channels.

But outside of that, "in terms of protests, blockades, etc., we will not," he said. "The PAN does not support those type of actions."

About 1,000 national and foreign observers monitored the vote, with one group saying problems were widespread. Enrique Vera of the Mexican Electoral Observation Movement said irregularities included busing in voters and other tactics to boost Sabines' vote total. Sabines said Monday his party had run a clean race.

"With all this, I don't know what to think," said Monica Lopez, a 24-year-old pharmaceutical chemist who is from Aguilar's hometown of Tapachula but would not say for whom she voted. "The important thing is that the community is participating in democracy. ... I hope that everyone respects the decision" of electoral officials.

© 2006 The Associated Press