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Appeal may be decided by electoral court

MEXICO CITY—Created in the 1990s to end years of clouded election results, Mexico's Federal Electoral Tribunal will face its toughest test ever should Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador follow through on his plans to challenge the results of the presidential election.

TRIFE, as the tribunal is known in Mexico, has overturned results of governors' races and dozens of state, local and congressional contests, but has never dealt with a presidential race this close—about 244,000 votes separate the two front-runners—or with as many issues as Lopez Obrador promises to raise.

In the 2000 presidential election that ended 71 years of one-party presidential rule in Mexico, TRIFE heard, and rejected, only two minor complaints. But in a race this close, TRIFE's decisions are sure to be under a national and global spotlight.

For Americans who remember the weeks of indecision that came after the 2000 U.S. presidential battle, there are few parallels. For one, all Mexicans use the same ballots, so there will be no discussion of different voting procedures.

For another, Mexico's regular court system has no role to play in an election dispute. TRIFE is the final stop, and its decision can't be appealed to another court, a step taken to ensure politically appointed judges aren't involved in the outcome.

There are seven judges on TRIFE's highest tribunal; there are also five regional tribunals. They are nominated by Mexico's Supreme Court and must be ratified by two-thirds of the Mexican Senate. They serve 10-year terms.

Ciro Murayama, a special adviser to Mexico's top election official from 1999 to 2003, believes TRIFE won't feel pressured if Lopez Obrador appeals. He notes that the court has been in existence since 1996, through three federal congressional elections, 32 gubernatorial elections and hundreds of mayoral contests.

"We are talking about hundreds of cases that have gone to the tribunal," he said. "When the tribunal has given its ruling ... the parties without exception have accepted it."

Because its purpose is singular, the TRIFE is agile, said Ray Kennedy, an elections expert in Mexico who trains electoral workers around the global for the United Nations.

"You look at the Florida Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court—elections are not their specialty, and it took them time to get up to speed," he said. "You don't have that here. You have a body that specializes in one thing."

Under Mexican law, no candidate is officially the winner of Sunday's presidential race until TRIFE certifies the results as valid.

Once complaints come before the tribunal, the body must rule before Aug. 31, meaning validation of results could drag on for many weeks. TRIFE must validate election results by Sept. 6, and the next president takes office on Dec. 1.

Complaints about voting irregularities or fraud normally are filed with one of the five regional tribunals, which makes the ruling. But disputes involving the presidential race are forwarded to the seven-judge highest tribunal.

Political parties may challenge election results under various grounds, including the actions of local election officials. A nonconformity lawsuit seeks to have the entire election thrown out.

Lopez Obrador said he would specify on Saturday what actions he and the Democratic Revolutionary Party would take. His chief public complaints so far have been about the workings of the preliminary count, which have little to do with the final outcome and thus are unlikely to go before the electoral court.

He's also called for a vote-by-vote recount of all ballots nationwide, but experts like Murayama say the law doesn't contemplate that. The election can be nullified if there are problems in more than 20 percent of the voting booths, but there's been no evidence of that.

One key issue may be whether Lopez Obrador can visually inspect all so-called null votes, ballots that were judged for various reasons to be invalid. There were 908,931 null votes, nearly four times as many as Calderon's margin of victory.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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