MEXICO CITY—By the narrowest of margins, conservative Felipe Calderon won the official recount in Mexico's bitterly contested presidential election Thursday. But it may be a little early to break out the champagne.
A court challenge by the fiery leftist who lost the count ensures a nasty battle ahead, and an angry, divided electorate underscores the unprecedented challenge the next president will face in governing this sprawling country.
Volatile street protests, jittery financial markets and political class warfare seem all but certain to test Mexico's young democracy in coming days. And whoever wins the legal fight will walk into office with a split Congress, an urgent backlog of unfinished reforms and only a third of the electorate convinced that he was the man for the job.
"We will have a president with very few votes and a very slim mandate," said Rosanna Fuentes Barain, editor of the Spanish-language edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. "He will have to take into consideration why so many people voted for the other options."
After a count and recount, Calderon, of the National Action Party, or PAN, prevailed with a tiny 0.58 percentage-point margin of victory, final returns posted Thursday show. Only 243,934 votes separated Calderon from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.
Calderon wasn't seen in public after an early morning celebration when his vote total finally surpassed Lopez Obrador's after a tense 20 hours of counting during which Lopez Obrador had remained in the lead.
Calderon congratulated his opponent for a hard-fought race and said it was time to start healing wounds.
Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, was in no mood for the olive branch, however. He called the result "manipulated" and vowed to fight in court and on the street. He called on supporters to pack the city's central square on Saturday.
"We cannot recognize these results," he said. "There were many irregularities." In his latest accusation of impropriety, Lopez Obrador called it a "provocation" to release results that showed him leading for hours Wednesday night, only to see them reverse at 4:07 a.m. Thursday.
Calderon forces claim the 11th-hour flip was engineered by Lopez Obrador himself. They said that PRD members intentionally slowed the recount in conservative strongholds so that Mexicans would go to bed thinking Lopez Obrador had won—and then use populist outrage over his unexpected loss to whip supporters into a frenzy.
The deadline for resolving disputes is Sept. 6, officials said, raising the specter of prolonged uncertainty and social unrest.
Anger was palpable among Lopez Obrador supporters, who indicated no problem in believing the election was stolen from them, even though Mexico's federal election agency, known by its Spanish acronym IFE, enjoys a good reputation domestically and internationally.
Ernesto Sanchez, who makes $1.50 a day in a T-shirt design shop, said he planned to attend the Lopez Obrador rally on Saturday to send a message to the "rats" at the top of Mexico's socio-economic ladder. He singled out those living in Mexico City's swankiest neighborhoods and blamed them for his country's deep poverty.
"I think there's going to be social conflict. We are paying more taxes than the bastards in Las Lomas and Santa Fe," he said. "They're the ones who have destroyed our country."
The idea that Lopez Obrador and his supporters would protest any loss in the streets circulated well before Sunday's election. Now that it's happened, those who voted against him are in an "I told you so" mood.
Die-hard Calderon supporter Carlos Cavazos, 30, said Lopez Obrador would stop at nothing to win.
"I don't think there was fraud. But he'll try to do anything. I think he's corrupt and wants power," Cavazos said.
The state-by-state election results highlighted Mexico's deep regional and socio-economic divisions. Those disparate forces had been largely kept together by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had won every presidential election for seven decades until 2000—often through corruption and intimidation.
But this year, the PRI's candidate took only 22 percent of the vote, and Calderon and Lopez Obrador split the country in half.
Calderon won in 16 of Mexico's 31 states, while Lopez Obrador took the other 15 and the federal district of Mexico City.
As expected, Calderon won primarily in the industrial north and conservative west, while Lopez Obrador swept Mexico City and dominated the impoverished south.
There were exceptions. For example, the northern state of Zacatecas, long the home of millions of Mexicans working in the United States, voted for Lopez Obrador. In the south, Puebla, a major industrial center, went for Calderon.
Calderon did better in his strongholds than Lopez Obrador did in his: Calderon won nine states by a margin of about 2-to-1, while Lopez Obrador did that in only six, counting his Mexico City bastion.
Calderon, if his victory is ultimately upheld, will oversee a sharply divided Congress. PAN will control the largest bloc of seats, but is far short of a majority and will have to form a coalition, most likely with the PRI, which went from being the largest bloc to No. 3.
But that may work out well for Calderon, said Bob Balkin, director of the U.S.-Mexico Center of the State University of New York in Mexico City. The PRI will have every incentive to team up with the PAN in Congress in a bid to become the "responsible left" in Mexico, Balkin said, giving Calderon an opportunity that President Vicente Fox, also a PAN member, never had: "He may be able to carve out a working legislative majority."
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060706 MEXICO recount, 20060706 MEXICO state
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