MEXICO CITY—The fate of Mexico's hotly contested presidential election is in the hands of a special electoral court, which must declare a winner. But for many Mexicans, that result, no matter who wins, amounts to a stain on the country's young and fragile democracy.
"There was manipulation," said Veronica Mendoza, a Mexico City voter who cast her ballot for the apparent winner, conservative Felipe Calderon, yet admits feeling disappointed in the acrimony surrounding the outcome. "I don't know if there was theft, but there was manipulation."
Six years ago, Mexicans celebrated the end of seven decades of often-corrupt rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI in its Spanish initials. Vicente Fox, of the National Action Party, or PAN, a boot-wearing rancher with the rugged good looks of the Marlboro man, had become the first non-PRI politician to win the presidency since 1929, and Mexicans hoped his victory would usher in a new era of untainted elections.
But the disputed result of the first presidential election since, with the PAN's Calderon leading by only 243,000 votes out of more than 41 million cast July 2, finds few celebrating now. The apparent loser, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, on Monday filed the last of 152 lawsuits aimed at persuading the Federal Electoral Tribunal, or TRIFE, to order a recount of every vote in every polling station.
The TRIFE (pronounced TREE-fay), which had never been asked to call a presidential election, must rule on those suits by Aug. 31 and declare a winner by Sept. 6.
Mexico's political future hangs in the balance, and Mexicans are trying to figure out whom to blame: Fox, the campaigns or the entire election process.
"It looked like we had advanced, but we have gone backwards," said Consuelo Jimenez, a bureaucrat in the federal education ministry. "It's a step backwards. The last election was much clearer."
Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive who once had the reputation of being above the fray, gets the blame from some for his administration's championing last year of an effort to bring criminal charges against Lopez Obrador, who then was Mexico City's mayor, over a minor property dispute. Had the effort been successful, Lopez Obrador would've been barred from running for president. Instead, he became a political martyr.
Once the election campaign began, Fox was perceived as an active participant, in violation of Mexican law. Twice, the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, rebuked him for interference.
In February, the IFE (pronounced EE-fay) ordered Fox to pull television ads touting his presidential achievements, determining that they were designed to benefit Calderon. In June, the Fox administration was ordered to pull spots the Interior Ministry created that exhorted Mexicans to vote with this loaded slogan: "We did it once, now we have to do it again."
Both acts struck many people as similar to the way PRI politicians once used the government to push the party's candidates.
Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a political analyst and a former spokesman for a PRI president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, said Fox and his administration would have better served Mexico's democratic hopes by remaining silent. "The federal government, and the president in particular, have been reckless in speaking out so strongly before the election," he said.
Lopez Obrador's campaign also has problems with credibility. A former member of the PRI, Lopez Obrador surrounded himself with a virtual who's who of ex-PRI members tied to allegations of election fraud. His campaign chief, Manuel Camacho Solis, held the same position in 1988 for Salinas, who may be the most vilified man in Mexico.
In 1988, Salinas and the PRI narrowly won the presidency after a mysterious computer crash that many Mexicans think was an orchestrated fraud. It fell to Camacho to negotiate on behalf of the PRI to get other parties to accept the tainted results. In effect, the people crying fraud now are the same ones who denied it in 1988 when the signs were far more obvious.
Opinion polls consistently show that Mexicans hold their political parties in low regard. The same polls showed them trusting the IFE. Until this election, that is.
At the behest of the United Nations, the IFE has trained electoral authorities in Iraq and across the Americas. But, rightly or wrongly, many Mexicans now question whether the IFE is a fair electoral referee.
That's because it failed to deliver a promised quick count and took nearly three days to acknowledge that while it had said that more than 98 percent of the ballots had been counted, more than 3 million had been set aside for a closer look. By then, Lopez Obrador was claiming that millions of votes were missing.
The Mexico City daily newspaper El Universal ran a cover story Monday on its weekly magazine insert titled "The Run-Over Referee." It focused on the political missteps of IFE chief Luis Carlos Ugalde, 40, a technocrat who became Mexico's top election authority in 2003. When he took the post, many questioned his lack of political experience.
Many Mexicans were willing to believe Lopez Obrador's accusations of IFE partiality because Calderon's brother-in-law, Diego Zavala, was among the bidders to upgrade Mexico's vote-counting software. He didn't get the contract, but that hasn't stopped Lopez Obrador's supporters and some partisan organizations from alleging that Zavala designed the software.
Still, some analysts think that even though the election is contested, tainted and subject to wild conspiracy theories, Mexico's institutions will emerge stronger than ever.
"In the past, most of this would be hidden," said Rod Camp, a professor at California's Claremont College who specializes in Mexican elections. "In that sense, it's a test of the system, but the system is strong enough to survive."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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