- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2006

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s intensely fought presidential race remained deadlocked between rival leftist and conservative candidates today, revealing deep divisions in this country of 100 million.

Authorities anticipated days of political uncertainty before enough votes are counted by the official Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to declare a clear winner.

Felipe Calderon, candidate of the governing National Action Party (PAN), was narrowly ahead as of late this morning with 36.46 percent of the more than 36 million votes counted, compared to 35.41 percent for the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, voting officials said. The candidate of the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party was far behind.

The IFE said that because of the closeness of the so-called “quick count,” it would not announce a winner until it had completed an official count of the ballots, which will begin Wednesday.

The uncertainty did not stop both leading candidates from claiming victory or their supporters from celebrating. Enthusiastic backers of Mr. Lopez Obrador honked their car horns and crowded into the capital’s main square last night as their candidate declared, “According to our data, we have won the presidency of the republic.”

Mr. Calderon, meanwhile, said in a television appearance this morning that preliminary results showed that he had won. “They give me a very, very clear victory,” he said.

Waving flags and cheering loudly, labor unionists, Indians and Marxist flag-carriers urged voters to reject the free-market policies of Mr. Calderon, arguing that in the past six years it had failed to help the 40 million poor.

While parts of the capital showed their colors for Mr. Lopez Obrador, a popular former mayor of Mexico City, Mr. Calderon was expected to draw his electoral strength from the city’s better-heeled neighborhoods and Mexico’s industrialized north.

Altogether, 70 million people were eligible to vote, with polling stations closing at 7 p.m. Washington time. Observers said there appeared to be a heavy voter turnout, and initial official results were expected several hours later if one candidate was clearly ahead.

Early polls results for congressional seats showed an almost even split of between the right-wing PAN, the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the neoliberal Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The divisions will force any new president to forge political alliances to move his political platform forward.

Mr. Calderon campaigned on a strong private-sector platform that he said would create jobs and reinvigorate Mexico’s economy — policies backed by the middle and upper classes that have prospered under current President Vicente Fox, also of PAN.

Mr. Calderon “is the best candidate — he represents continuity, and he is capable of doing what is best for Mexico, which is economic growth and development,” said Guillermo Barroso, 39, a manager at Valezzi, a company that produces PVC pipes.

Speaking outside the stately multimillion-dollar homes in Mexico City’s Llomas de Chapultepec neighborhood, Mr. Barroso said that Mr. Lopez Obrador was a populist who would reduce the country to economic paralysis.

Mr. Calderon, trailing Mr. Obrador by several points in polls a few weeks ago, closed the gap by warning that his rival would bring ruin to Mexico by emulating the nationalizations and factory takeovers of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But many moderate voters rejected the comparison.

“He has nothing to do with Chavez or [Cuban President Fidel] Castro. That is propaganda,” protested Sergio Mucino, 68, a retired lawyer. “He has a good platform, he will be equitable with the poor, the middle class and the businessmen.”

Mr. Mucino, who voted in the busy middle-class district of Copilco, where just minutes before the leftist leader cast his ballot, said Mr. Lopez Obrador’s New Deal-style proposals would stimulate employment. But critics have questioned where the populist candidate would get the money to finance his programs.

The closeness of the race revealed a society sharply divided over how to solve Mexico’s considerable economic and security problems.

Polling stations around Mexico City were calm as voters lined up to cast their ballots under sunny skies beginning at 8 a.m. Local press reported heavy voter turnout around the country.

Mr. Lopez Obrador, dressed in an open-collar white shirt and leather jacket, voted in Copilco as supporters stood outside chanting “Yes, we can.”

“Obrador is a very good man. He did a lot; he helped the people,” said Patricia Perez Martinez, 48, who had brought her camera in hope of getting a picture of the candidate.

Mr. Lopez Obrador was mayor of sprawling Mexico City and its 14 million people until he decided to run for the presidency on a populist platform of help for the poor.

“I think the country would change” if he won, Mrs. Perez said. “At least he would lift us up economically. I voted six years ago for the [National Action Party of Mr. Calderon] because I believed in them, and they disappointed me.”

Early exit polls put PRD candidate Marcelo Ebrard 27 points ahead of his PAN rival Demetrio Sodi for the powerful post of mayor of the country’s capital.

It was comparatively quiet at the polling station where Mr. Calderon, in a sharp blue suit and tie, voted in an upper-middle-class neighborhood marked by businesses, banks and apartment buildings.

A bald, barrel-chested mechanic, leaving the polling station walking his three Chihuahuas, said uncertainty over the election results had driven down his business by about 70 percent.

“Mr. Calderon is the only sensible candidate, the only one close to the reality of the needs of the Mexican people. He will stabilize the country economically,” Alejandro Ayalla said.

The closeness of the presidential race, he said, showed the “uncertainty of half the people — they are not sure what Obrador will do.”

Roberto Madrazo, candidate of the PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000, was never a factor in the race. He cast his ballot in Villahermosa on the oil-rich Gulf coast, saying he was sure he would win.

But in Mexico City, the streets belonged to the leftists, who flocked by the thousands into Zocalo Square, eating tamales from street vendors and waving communist flags.

Even the legendary Subcomandante Marcos — the Zapatista leader who became a hero to the impoverished indigenous population — showed up in Angel of Liberty Square, wearing his black mask and smoking a pipe.

He immediately was surrounded by Marxist groups, labor unions and Indians. Only a tight circle of supporters prevented him from being crushed by the crowd.

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