- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

MEXICO CITY — Mexico began a marathon review of vote tallies yesterday to determine whether conservative candidate Felipe Calderon really won the tight presidential race, while his leftist challenger insisted that he was victorious and denounced what he called widespread irregularities.

Mr. Calderon told the Associated Press that he would be willing to include his charismatic challenger in his Cabinet in an effort to avoid weeks of political impasse. But he said he didn’t think Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would accept, adding that the two men hadn’t talked since the election.

In the latest recount yesterday of 80 percent of polling stations, Mr. Lopez Obrador took a slim lead over his conservative rival.

In scenes reminiscent of the Florida recount in the U.S. presidential vote in 2000, the divided nation bit its nails as the partial returns showed Mr. Lopez Obrador overtaking Mr. Calderon, who had ended just ahead in the initial vote count.

The leftist anti-poverty worker, a former mayor of Mexico City, led Mr. Calderon, a pro-U.S. lawyer, by 2 percentage points, but it was still too early to declare a victory.

Mr. Lopez Obrador had demanded a recount of every ballot, saying yesterday: “The political stability of the country hangs in the balance.”

Mr. Lopez Obrador could mobilize millions if he doesn’t get his way. In a press conference yesterday, Mr. Calderon raised the possibility that he would do the same.

“We could also call for protests, but the vote can’t be replaced by demonstrations,” he said. “They are trying to undermine an election without having the results to back it up.”

Federal Electoral Institute President Luis Carlos Ugalde said late Tuesday that 2.6 million votes were not included in the preliminary count because of “inconsistencies,” such as poor handwriting or extraneous marks on the tally sheets attached outside each ballot box. Mr. Lopez Obrador had initially said those 2.6 million were “missing.”

If a review of the uncounted votes inside prove the numbers on these tally sheets are valid, Mr. Calderon would still lead, but by just 0.64 percent — about 250,000 of the 41 million votes cast, Mr. Ugalde said.

Electoral officials across Mexico began to review all the tally sheets yesterday, a process that by law must continue around the clock until the final, official result is determined. It was not clear when that might be.

The final count will be turned over to Mexico’s electoral courts, where political parties can dispute the results. The electoral court is to certify the winner Sept. 6.

Mr. Ugalde said officials would open ballot boxes to conduct individual counts only where there are tally-sheet problems.

The review that began yesterday is crucial to proving the balloting was clean to a nation that emerged six years ago from 71 years of one-party rule replete with election fraud. Some fear that failure to convince the public and candidates it was a fair vote could spark widespread civil unrest.

“Such a close race is a nightmare scenario,” said Ted Lewis, an election observer for the San Francisco-based Global Exchange. “If the ruling party wins by a hair, a lot of people will jump to the conclusion that something is amiss.”

Claudia Sheinbaum, an aide to Mr. Lopez Obrador, said yesterday that the party found “very grave inconsistencies” in at least 50,000 polling places, including 18,646 in which votes cast outnumbered ballots distributed by officials. There was no immediate response from election officials.


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