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 on to a slender lead over conservative Felipe Calderon, who's already declared victory in the race.
Election officials declined to declare a winner until all the votes had been counted and promised to continue counting until they finished. With more than 88 percent of the vote tabulated, Lopez Obrador was ahead by just 1.3 percentage points.
And that margin seemed to grow tinier with every new report as ballot tallies came in from Mexico's northwest regions, where Calderon had run strongly.
Whatever the result, both Lopez Obrador and Calderon supporters called for a hand count of every ballot cast. "To give certainty, we are open to counting ballot by ballot," Lopez Obrador spokesman Inti Munoz said.
That lent an even greater sense of uncertainty to an electoral process that had this country on tenterhooks even before voters went to the polls on Sunday. Polls had predicted a statistical dead heat, but most pollsters had not considered an outcome this close.
A preliminary count awarded the advantage to Calderon on Monday, a result welcomed by Mexico's business community, which hoped Calderon would continue the business-friendly policies of current President Vicente Fox.
But Wednesday's official count—primarily a review of tally sheets prepared in local polling stations Sunday night, though some previously uncounted ballots were also tabulated—had Lopez Obrador in the lead from the beginning.
Mexico City's stock market sank 4 percent on the prospect. Lopez Obrador is widely distrusted by the business community, which fears his advocacy for the poor will end up costing money in more social programs and better tax collections.
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 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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