MEXICO CITY—The two leading candidates in the most contentious presidential race in modern Mexican history each declared victory late Sunday after exit polls and a government "quick count" showed the contest was too close to call.
The decision by both leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, and conservative Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party, or PAN, to proclaim himself the winner raised the specter of a prolonged and potentially destabilizing dispute.
Their declarations came only minutes after the Mexican Federal Election Institute warned both candidates to act responsibly and reminded voters that it was the only agency that could declare a winner. The institute said it would be at least Wednesday before an official result was known.
The United States has a major stake in the outcome of the election. While Calderon has pledged to keep in place pro-U.S. policies of current President Vicente Fox, Lopez Obrador has vowed to delay portions of the North American Free Trade Agreement and to strike a more independent foreign policy, particularly on issues involving Cuba.
The two men also have proposed different ways of discouraging migration to the United States, with Lopez Obrador calling for greater subsidies to the poor and the expansion of public works programs.
The lack of an undisputed result raises the stakes. Mexico has long been relatively calm politically. The threat of violent demonstrations and long-term controversy over the results is likely to unsettle financial markets, at a minimum, and could lead to a destabilization of the Mexican economy that would increase the already free-flowing torrent of migrants to the United States.
One firm result was apparent in Sunday's results: for the first time in modern Mexican history, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had run Mexico largely unchallenged for more than 70 years until 2000, wasn't among the top two finishers. The PRI also appeared to have lost its plurality in Congress.
Lopez Obrador and Calderon both cited polls in declaring victory. Earlier in the evening, most Mexican media had withheld the actual results of their own exit polls after they showed the candidates in a virtual tie. Only TV Azteca among Mexico City's major media released the actual results of its exit poll, which showed Calderon victorious by two percentage points.
The electoral institute had planned to announce the result of a "quick count" of representative polling districts at 11 p.m. local time, but canceled that plan after the count was too close to determine a winner.
Lopez Obrador told supporters in a nationally televised address that the national "quick count" had given him a 500,000 vote lead, out of more than 40 million ballots cast.
"I think this result is irreversible," Lopez Obrador said. "We won. We triumphed."
Calderon also cited the quick count, though in his favor, and named several exit polls from major firms that showed him victorious. He claimed a three-point lead.
"We won the presidential election," Calderon said. Both pledged to form governments of national unity once the official results confirm their victory.
President Fox took to the airwaves to appeal for calm. He urged parties, candidates and citizens to be patient and respect the electoral process.
Anticipating what is likely to be a tense few days in which the election body is subjected to political pressure, Fox expressed confidence in the institute, saying it "has the respect and confidence of all Mexicans."
The close race is likely to upset supporters of Lopez Obrador, who for two years has been leading the opinion polls. But Calderon ran a vicious campaign designed to scare middle class voters, warning them that a leftist president would lead Mexico into an alliance with unsavory leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a protege of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Lopez Obrador said repeatedly he would not make radical changes to Mexico's longstanding macroeconomic policies, which have been followed by three successive presidents since 1992, but his focus on increased social spending and his skepticism of Washington-style free trade policies represent a real break from current policy.
Polls had predicted a close finish, prompting concerns of unrest if days lingered with no results or if the results were disputed.
Irregularities had seemed relatively minor until the closeness of the outcome recalled the 2000 and 2004 U.S. presidential elections.
The most serious complaints revolved around special polling stations for out-of-town voters, several of which ran out of ballots.
In the poverty-stricken slum of Chimalhuacan, just outside Mexico City, many waited for hours at one of the special voting stations. Others were turned away when poll workers couldn't find their names in their database.
"They said I could vote here," said Domingo Ojeda Prieto, 79, a resident of Veracruz on Mexico's Gulf coast who was in Mexico City for a medical procedure. "But when I gave them my voter identification card, they said I couldn't."
Ironically, federal election authorities limited the number of away-from-home ballots in part because in election's past these special voting booths were rife with ballot stuffing. But migration within Mexico has risen, as it has into the United States, and many Mexicans unhappily found themselves unable to vote Sunday.
There were only 750 ballots allocated to each special voting station, and a little more than 600,000 altogether distributed throughout the country.
Turnout was relatively heavy and appeared likely to surpass the electoral institute's 60 percent prediction.
PRD supporters have lost a close presidential election once before, in 1988, when the then-PRI controlled election commission's computers suffered an hours-long failure. During that failure, National Democratic Front candidate Cuahtemoc Cardenas saw his lead disappear. The winner of that election was the PRI's Carlos Salinas de Gotari, officially with 50.7 percent of the vote. Cardenas went on to found the PRD.
A PAN victory would also be a painful reminder for Lopez Obrador of the 1994 governor's race in his home state of Tabasco, where he lost by a narrow margin to the PRI's current presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo. Lopez Obrador's supporters claimed fraud in that outcome.
George Grayson, a Mexico political analyst and author of a book about Lopez Obrador called "Mexican Messiah," said Lopez Obrador has raised expectations so much among the poor that they may not be able to accept defeat.
"Even if he went on TV and said, `Let's cool it,' I don't think he could restrain his followers from pretty ugly demonstrations if he is announced as the loser," said Grayson, acting as an international observer. "And I'm an optimist."
As it stands, PRD officials late Sunday already had called for the party's supporters to head to Mexico City's giant central square, the Zocalo, where Lopez Obrador supporters have staged exuberant and sometimes angry protests in the past.
In other races, exit polls showed the PAN and PRD doing well in their core constituencies. The PAN maintained its hold on the governorships of Jalisco, Guanajuato and Morelos states while the PRD candidate overwhelmingly won the key Mexico City mayor's race.
Aside from the presidency, Mexicans were voting for 128 federal senate seats, 500 congressional posts, three state governors, the Mexico City mayor, 423 other mayoral posts and 293 state legislative positions in nine states.
Interviews in Mexico City testified to the closeness of the presidential voting, with both candidates receiving support from a cross-section of people leaving the polls. The PRI's Roberto Madrazo was rarely mentioned.
The high voter turnout reflected the election's high stakes. Mexicans were deciding between continuity and a turn to the left, between Fox's pro-United States, investment-oriented economic model that Calderon has promised to continue and Lopez Obrador's vow to place greater emphasis on an independent foreign policy and expanded social programs for the poor.
Those stands were clearly on the minds of Mexico City voters as they went to the polls.
Juan Silva Zamudio, a Mexico City scientist, said he voted for Calderon. "He has a global vision. He's a good negotiator. We need to be involved in the global economy," he explained.
Truck driver Ignacio Medina, 65, said he voted for Fox in 2000 but is now supporting Lopez Obrador. He admired what Lopez Obrador has done for the poor as mayor of Mexico City, and expressed the hope he'd do the same for rural areas.
"We need help in the countryside," said Medina, who abandoned farming a decade ago in a rural swath of territory east of Mexico City. "You can't make a living farming anymore, 10 years ago you could do it."
Foreign policy also influenced some voters. Oscar Diaz, an unemployed economist, said he voted for Lopez Obrador because he promised to return Mexico to an approach more independent of the United States. "Relations with the United States need to be more than a president that gives in, that represents the interests of the Yankees," he said.
That was the feeling as well for Ruperta Lopez Fonseca, an accountant, who said she hoped Lopez Obrador would strike a more distant relationship with President Bush than Fox had.
"He can be a friend, but your friend needs to be responsive. It can't be one sided," she said after casting her vote in Mexico City's middle class San Rafael district.
Outside the massive Wal-Mart Supercenter in Mexico City's working-class Buenavista neighborhood, which boasts 28 checkout lanes and a Blockbuster video store, middle-class voters appeared split.
Marco Polo Elizalde said he voted for Calderon because he believed the ad campaigns that warned that Lopez Obrador's big-spending ideas would trigger an economic downturn like those of decades past.
"Truthfully, it is a big worry for lot of us, that there will be another economic crisis," said Elizalde said.
But Humberto Urrutia, owner of a small business, dismissed concerns that Lopez Obrador would tinker with the economy. "He's not crazy," said Urrutia, confident a left-leaning government would respect the economic gains made by Mexico in recent years.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Janet Schwartz contributed to this report from Oaxaca City, Oaxaca.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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