July 4, 2006 in Nation/World

Legal battle to slow Mexico election result

Manuel Roig-franzia Washington Post
 
Associated Press photo

Voting officials stack ballot boxes from Sunday’s election at an electoral district office in Mexico City on Monday. The sign on the empty box reads “Your vote is free and secret.”
(Full-size photo)

MEXICO CITY – Felipe Calderon, a free-trade booster who wants to increase Mexico’s presence in the global economy, held an ultra-thin lead of 1 percentage point over populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in preliminary presidential election tallies released Monday.

Teams of lawyers are girding for a massive challenge of the results, threatening a crisis reminiscent of the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election. Legal experts and campaign strategists here say the winner of Sunday’s ballot might not be officially declared for up to two months.

A preliminary, uncertified count by Mexico’s electoral authority shows Calderon with 36.38 percent of the vote and Lopez Obrador with 35.34 percent. The electoral authority, which will begin its official count Wednesday, will eventually cede control of the contest to a special elections court.

The elections court, known as the Federal Judicial Electoral Tribunal, has until Sept. 6 to certify a winner and has powers equivalent to those of the U.S. Supreme Court as the final arbiter of election disputes.

“This is going to take a long, long time,” Manuel Camacho Solis, a top adviser to Lopez Obrador, said in an interview late Monday. “Our perception is that there have been very important irregularities.”

It was unclear how long it would take the electoral authority to complete its official count. But strategists for Lopez Obrador have already compiled an extensive list of alleged election-law violations and irregularities that will most likely form the foundation of their legal challenge.

The centerpiece is their contention that 3 million ballots are missing and have not been counted. They contend the Calderon campaign offered access to social programs to win votes – a practice that two independent studies prior to the election said was employed by all three major parties. And they allege that votes for Lopez Obrador were shaved off the rolls in his home state of Tabasco.

Camacho Solis said the Lopez Obrador campaign has considered mobilizing peaceful demonstrations to protest the results but has not yet done so.

Arturo Sarukhan, a top adviser to Calderon, said his campaign’s legal team would push for a quick declaration of a winner, arguing that the preliminary count shows Calderon ahead and that a group of European observers found no evidence of widespread fraud.

“We will seek closure Wednesday,” Sarukhan said in an interview. “The streets should not be used to accomplish what the ballot boxes couldn’t.”

But the high level of rancor since polls closed Sunday afternoon make it “probable” that challenges will delay an official result for months, according to Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

“The test of the success of Mexico’s democratic transition is going to come in the next few months,” said Pastor, who monitored balloting in Mexico City.

Comparisons to Florida during the 2000 presidential election quagmire were rampant.

“This is going to be like the hanging chads,” said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who observed votes being counted at Mexico’s electoral commission headquarters. “It will be disputed to the last ballot.”


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