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In Mexico, Calderon claims victory; rival considers legal challenge

MEXICO CITY—Conservative Felipe Calderon claimed an insurmountable lead Monday in Mexico's closest presidential race in modern history, but his populist rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, began exploring plans for a potentially lengthy challenge.

Nevertheless, the air of crisis, which had reigned late Sunday when both candidates declared themselves victorious in fiery speeches, seemed to ease as nearly complete but unofficial returns showed Calderon clinging to a victory margin of almost 400,000 votes—a 1 percent advantage.

Mexico's financial markets returned their best performance since May, with the Mexico City stock market rising 4.8 percent and the peso rising 2.2 percent against the dollar.

Lopez Obrador, who had declared his victory "irreversible" on Sunday, issued more conciliatory statements, even as his top aides raised questions about voting irregularities and promised to show "hard evidence" of their victory.

"I'm always going to act in a responsible manner," Lopez Obrador said in an interview with Televisa. "If we lose the election, I will accept it. If we win, even it's by one or two votes, I am going to defend the triumph."

Leaders of Lopez Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, scheduled a press conference for 9 p.m. EDT.

The standoff recalled the U.S. presidential election in 2000, which was decided only after the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to stop a recount in Florida. There are no hanging chads or butterfly ballots here, but as in Florida six years ago, Mexicans are fighting over discarded ballots and this country's version of absentee votes.

With more than 98 percent of the votes counted, Calderon was ahead 36.4 percent to Lopez Obrador's 35.4 percent, giving him a margin of about 385,000 votes.

In a testy interview on the Televisa channel, Calderon said most of the remaining votes to be counted were from northern states where his National Action Party, or PAN, dominates. He said there were simply not enough votes remaining to reverse the results.

"We won 1-0, but we won," he said. Calderon called his victory "irreversible"—the same phrase Lopez Obrador used late Sunday night when exit polls and incomplete returns suggested a technical tie.

The final call rests with the Federal Election Institute, known by its Spanish initials IFE. A recount begins Wednesday and could drag on for several days. Any challenges have to be turned in by July 9, officials said. In the event that irregularities are found, the entire election results could be appealed to an election tribunal that doesn't have to rule before Sept. 2.

In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, PRD spokesman Gerardo Fernandez explained the rationale for an official contest.

He said the PRD carried populous Mexico City and 16 of 31 states—among them Mexico, Veracruz and Tabasco. Combined, those areas encompass more than 30 percent of Mexico's population. The PRD carried three of the five most populous regions and 155 of 300 voting districts, Fernandez said.

"If that isn't sufficient, we have facts that show our victory," he said. Asked to elaborate, Fernandez cited internal polls showing the PRD winning by margins not reflected in the preliminary results reached Monday.

Fernandez also pointed to various voting discrepancies, including discarded ballots, but he stopped short of saying there was outright fraud, referring instead to various "errors and inconsistencies."

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 Cuauhtemoc 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.

Adding to the PAN's good news, election results show it won all three governors' races on Sunday's ballot and became the largest bloc in the Mexican congress, even though congress is still likely to remain a stumbling block to the next president.

Preliminary vote totals show that, as expected, Calderon cleaned house in the wealthy, industrialized north, winning nine of 11 states, and dominated the central west heartland by carrying five of those six states.

Lopez Obrador dominated the center of the country, winning five of its six states and sprawling Mexico City, along with seven of the eight southern states. One southern state, Campeche, was still too close to call. The PRI did not win a single state in the presidential race, the preliminary results show.

Roderic Camp, the author of 20 books on Mexico, said Sunday's vote showed as never before the fault line between the country's poor rural south and the wealthier, industrialized north.

"I believe this is the most regionally divided election that I can recall in recent memory," said Camp, a professor at California's Claremont McKenna College. "Historically the PRD and PAN are regional parties that do well in certain areas and can't get a single member of congress elected in other areas."

The United States, which has deep cultural and business ties to Mexico, has a major stake in the outcome of the election, but Bush administration officials stayed on the sidelines.

"The transparent process of reviewing ballots is also a fundamental tenet of democratic government," U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza said late Sunday. "I am convinced Mexicans will wait patiently and prudently as the Federal Electoral Institute reviews today's voting records."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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