MEXICO CITY—Mexico braced itself for another election shocker on Wednesday as a nationwide recount of Sunday's presidential vote showed leftist firebrand Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holding onto a slender lead over conservative Felipe Calderon, who's already declared victory in the race.
Election officials stressed that there were still millions of votes to be counted and advised against drawing conclusions. With more than 81 percent of the vote tabulated, Lopez Obrador was ahead by just under 2 percentage points.
Analysts cautioned that there was no way to know which votes were still to be counted and suggested that many may be from districts in Mexico's northwest, where Calderon had run strongly. Lopez Obrador's lead had been as great as 2.75 percent during the day, but was declining as the count neared its end.
But with the possibility growing that Lopez Obrador would be declared the victor in the official count, Mexicans began to prepare for what could be weeks of uncertainty and challenges.
Mexico City's stock market sank 4 percent Wednesday.
The announcement of a Lopez Obrador victory would be a stunning reversal of the preliminary count, which had put Calderon ahead, and would put Calderon in the uncomfortable position of challenging a vote that he's already declared the cleanest in Mexican history.
Calderon has promised to continue the pro-U.S. economic and foreign policies of current President Vicente Fox, while Lopez Obrador has promised to adopt a more independent foreign policy and delay implementation of parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Both candidates, as they have for three days running, expressed confidence in victory. In an interview with Televisa, Calderon said it would be "grave" to suggest that the preliminary returns announced Monday—figures that election officials stressed might not stand—would be reversed.
"It's grave to question what 44 million Mexicans decided," he said. "That's grave."
Lopez Obrador said he had no doubt that the early results would flip.
"I'm confident that we are ahead in this election, and that when all of the votes are counted, we will win," Lopez Obrador said.
The most significant adjustment in the vote totals stemmed from the inclusion of about 2.6 million votes in Wednesday's count that hadn't been added to the count on election night because of various processing flaws. As a result, a preliminary count that was billed as accounting for 98 percent of the vote really accounted for only 86 percent.
The outcome of Mexico's presidential election, the most contentious in modern Mexican history, has been in doubt ever since the polls closed on Sunday. Both Calderon, a member of the National Action Party, or PAN, and Lopez Obrador, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, declared victory.
On Monday, preliminary figures released by Mexico's Federal Election Institute (IFE) showed Calderon with a 400,000-vote lead, about 1 percent. But that margin dropped to fewer than 260,000, or 0.64 percent, on Tuesday after IFE released another computerized preliminary count.
The recount on Wednesday played out in 300 electoral districts nationwide, as election officials and representatives of the various parties scrutinized tally sheets and, in many cases, recounted by hand the letter-size ballots that voters had dropped in boxes.
In District 25, a Lopez Obrador stronghold in southern Mexico City, the recount got under way with a clash between PAN and PRD representatives—and with Lopez Obrador supporters protesting outside. "Where Did Our Democracy Go? Let's Rescue It. AMLO won!" read a banner that one protester carried, referring to Lopez Obrador by his initials.
In the District 25 building, the PRD representative tried to persuade election officials to open every ballot box and count votes one by one, but the PAN objected and the move failed.
Panel member Mayra Perez Sandi said there was no reason to count every vote because there were no discrepancies or irregularities on most of the tally sheets. But there were about 20 boxes still to be counted from election night, and by 1 p.m., Lopez Obrador had picked up a net of 748 votes—all but one from previously uncounted boxes.
There were various reasons why the boxes hadn't been counted. In some cases, the tally sheets—showing how each presidential candidate had done—hadn't been attached to the outside of the boxes as the law required and so they weren't included in the preliminary count. In other cases, tally sheets held by party representatives didn't match the totals on the boxes. Some of the tally sheets were smudged and couldn't be read.
Under Mexican law, ballot boxes can't be unsealed on Election Day, so the contents of the questioned boxes couldn't be examined until the official count on Wednesday.
One PRD official at the recount in District 25, Agustin Caballero, expressed confidence in a Lopez Obrador victory based on the numbers he saw.
"If we keep going at this pace everywhere else ... we can probably say that we will have overcome the PAN by the end of the day," he said. "We'll be able to say what we've always said, that Andres Manuel won and that they (the PAN) tried to steal the election."
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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