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Whatever the recount results, Mexico's presidential election conflicts are likely to persist

MEXICO CITY—Mexico's leftist presidential candidate put followers on notice Sunday that his conservative opponent could likely be certified as president, and that they should be prepared to demonstrate for weeks—even years— to protest any "illegitimate" transfer of power.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and leaders of his party also told a throng in Mexico City's main square that a court-ordered partial recount of nearly 10 percent of polling stations now underway has revealed enough irregularities to merit a full recount of the July 2 election.

"We are prepared to resist however long it might be necessary—for years, if that's what the circumstances merit," said Lopez Obrador, who is relying on protests and court challenges to contest his narrow loss as candidate of Mexico's Democratic Revolution Party.

Teams of judges, along with party officials, have been privately counting ballots by hand in almost 12,000 polling stations since Wednesday. They could finish late Sunday or Monday.

Mexico's Federal Electoral Tribunal ordered the partial recount but has declined to comment on the findings so far, which has left it to the parties to spin their own predictions of results.

Whatever the outcome, Lopez Obrador said Sunday, "We will not permit any kind of imposition (of a government). The objective of our movement is to save democracy." The stand drew cheers from followers, many of whom believe that much of Mexico's broadcast media, President Vicente Fox and federal election officials conspired to deprive their candidate of victory on Mexico's Election Day.

While he continues to press for a full recount and to assure followers that he was the victor, Lopez Obrador is also setting the stage to lead a mass movement against Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party, the PAN, and the PAN's pro-free-market policies.

Calderon appeared to have won the election by 244,000 votes, a margin of only 0.6 percent. Election officials, by law, must certify a new president by Sept. 6. The new president takes office in December. It was only six years ago, in 2000, that Mexico's 71-year-old one-party authoritarian state ended when Fox, as a PAN candidate, won the presidency and ousted the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Lopez Obrador told supporters on Sunday to be ready to protest wherever officials might certify Calderon as president, and "to mobilize" to protest Fox's annual state-of-the union speech on Sept. 1. Lopez Obrador called Fox "a traitor to democracy."

A former Mexico City mayor, Lopez Obrador also called on followers to demonstrate in the city's main square the night of Sept. 15, when Mexico's president usually faces the plaza on a balcony of the National Palace to lead a crowd in celebrating independence from Spain.

On Sept. 16, Lopez Obrador said, a convention will be held to determine the future of "civil resistance."

In the July 2 election that Lopez Obrador appears to have lost, Fox's party—PAN—won the greatest number of seats of any party in Mexico's Congress. Lopez Obrador's party—PRD—won the second greatest number of seats. The division could result in sharp clashes over reforms to Mexico's national oil and electrical industries, social welfare and other policies.

The PRD's new power, some inside the party privately worry, could be jeopardized if Lopez Obrador's protests alienate a great number of Mexicans.

While many believe Calderon's campaign ads unfairly portrayed Lopez Obrador as a danger to Mexico, and that Fox violated election laws against supporting a particular candidate, many Mexicans are thus far unconvinced by Lopez Obrador's accusations of widespread electoral fraud.

"He is manipulating the people," said Oscar Ortiz, 36, who drives a bicycle taxi in downtown Mexico City. "He said something I don't like. He said his own party representatives had sold out."

Ortiz referred to a Lopez Obrador accusation that a video captured a poll worker stuffing ballots. A PRD representative at the same polling station disagreed, and Lopez Obrador implied that she was corrupt and had been bought off.

The PRD exercised its right to petition for a full recount of votes. But after reviewing evidence submitted by the PRD, the Federal Electoral Tribunal, a panel of judges, concluded that only a recount of specific precincts should be conducted.

The PRD claims that ballots in more than 7,000 precincts should be thrown out because of irregularities, including too many ballots discovered in some boxes.

The PRD also says the recount shows a substantial number of uncounted votes gained for Lopez Obrador and a loss of 13,000 votes for Calderon. But the PAN claims the recount shows gains and losses for all candidates who ran, discrepancies that could be due to human error, not fraud.

To pressure for a full recount, thousands of Lopez Obrador supporters have pitched tents in the city's main square and in Mexico's main Reforma avenue, prompting outcry because of the impact on traffic and commerce.

The PRD controls Mexico City's mayor's office, and the city has allowed protesters to tap for free into electrical lines. The hotel industry on Reforma reports a significant drop in occupancy and revenue from the hubbub.

City officials cut a deal with hotels and restaurants so they won't have to pay taxes to the city as long as protests hurt business.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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