Mexico braces for legal battles as presidential candidate demands recount

MEXICO CITY – Mexico braced for what could be a lengthy legal battle reminiscent of the 2000 US election, as the leftist presidential candidate demanded a recount of results that gave his conservative rival a slender victory.

Former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador rejected preliminary results that gave a one-point lead to conservative Felipe Calderon, claiming three million votes were unaccounted for and that the tally was marked by numerous irregularities.

“What’s going on? That’s what we want to know,” asked Lopez Obrador, the standard-bearer of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), calling for a recount “polling station by polling station.”

“We have lawyers … ready to use every legal recourse,” his spokesman, Cesar Yanez, said, adding that the PRD may challenge the tally before the Federal Electoral Tribunal.

The final arbiter in electoral disputes, the tribunal has until September 6 to officially certify the winner of the July 2 election.

Calderon, of the ruling National Action Party (PAN), insisted there was no question he had an “irreversible” lead over Lopez Obrador.

His party dismissed claims three million votes were missing, saying they had simply been set aside in the normal process of double-checking questionable results from some polling stations.

But the statements raised fears of bitter and lengthy legal disputes similar to the electoral debacle in Florida that delayed the outcome of the 2000 US presidential election by five weeks.

The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) admitted Tuesday there were some “inconsistencies” but insisted this did not affect the smooth electoral process.

On Wednesday IFE will start verifying the tallies sent in from polling stations nationwide. Political party representatives may raise objections to specific tallies and request that they be compared with the actual ballots.

IFE is due to announce its final count on Sunday, and the electoral tribunal will then consider any complaint that is formally raised.

The political cliffhanger was being closely followed by Washington, which had hoped to see a reversal of the trend that brought several leftist leaders to power across Latin America in recent years.

But the US administration insisted it would work with whoever wins the election.

The post-electoral disputes came in the wake of campaigns marked by bitter accusations and mudslinging.

Calderon’s campaign had capitalized on fears that a Lopez Obrador victory would plunge Mexico into a political and economic crisis and likened the former mayor to Venezuela’s virulently anti-US leader Hugo Chavez, a comparison generally rejected by analysts.

Lopez Obrador claimed Calderon stood for a government that served the wealthy to the detriment of impoverished Mexicans, who make up about half the 103 million population.

A lifelong politician, Calderon, 43, has served as a lawmaker, PAN party president, and as energy minister in the cabinet of President Vicente Fox, whose 2000 victory ended 71 years of authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI.)

A pro-business conservative, Calderon says he wants to encourage foreign investment and slash corporate taxes in order to boost economic growth and create badly-needed jobs.

Lopez Obrador, 52, who professes little interest in foreign policy, had pledged that if elected he would carry out wideranging social reforms similar to those that gained him strong popularity when he was mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005.

The PRI’s candidate, Roberto Madrazo, who lagged far behind, accepted defeat but urged Mexicans to await the formal proclamation of a winner.

Mexico’s next president, who will take office on December 1, will face formidable challenges in trying to fulfill campaign pledges of battling poverty, corruption, common crime and drug-fueled violence.

He will also be hampered by the lack of congressional majority.

The ruling PAN won about 34 percent of the congressional mandates, the PRD 29 percent, and the PRI 27 percent.