Leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador refused to concede defeat Thursday in Mexico's closest-ever presidential race, after an official recount showed conservative candidate Felipe Calderón ahead by less than half a percentage point.
Alleging irregularities in the electoral process, Mr. Obrador promised to bring claims to a special electoral court and urged supporters to join him in the streets Saturday for a protest in the Zocalo, Mexico City's main square – raising the fear of violence in an already polarized nation with two distinct visions for the future.
Mexicans have been on edge since Sunday's election night, after electoral officials said the preliminary tally was too close to call. News sites were keeping a nearly live tally of the recount, which began Wednesday, allowing users to see updates every 10 minutes.
But they could be in for an even longer stretch of political limbo, one that could last through the summer. "Everyone has already proclaimed victory," says Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University in Washington. But "[a race] only closes when one of two things happen: those who lost concede defeat, or legal authorities certify the final results."
Before the recount began Wednesday, Obrador of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), who enticed the poor with his promises of pensions and employment, demanded a ballot-by-ballot recount to dissipate any fears of fraud after some 2.5 million votes were unaccounted for in the preliminary count. But that request was turned down by Luis Carlos Ugalde, president of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE).
"Mexican law is very clear on when a ballot box can be opened: only when there are problems with the vote tallies, when the tally sheet has obviously been changed, or when the box has been tampered with," Mr. Ugalde said.
Unsatisfied with a recount he claims could not adequately uncover any alleged irregularities, Obrador will present a legal challenge to the Federal Electoral Tribunal (Trife). By law, he must file this challenge within four days of an official declaration by IFE of the final results. The Trife, which has the final word, must certify a winner by Sept. 6.
Analysts say it is still unclear what specific charges Obrador will bring to the court. "They will throw everything against the wall and hope it sticks," says George Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary, who authored a book about Obrador.
He expects Obrador to claim that President Vicente Fox unfairly voiced support of Calderón, also of Fox's National Action Party (PAN). Mr. Grayson also says Obrador will claim that IFE did not play fair by not accounting for 2.5 million votes in the preliminary count, and that in some precincts there were anomalies – such as more people voting for senators or deputies than they did president, or vice versa. "But I don't think he has a leg to stand on. I bet the farm that the ultimate winner will be Calderón."
A legal challenge would present a major test to Mexico's electoral system, created in 1990 in the wake of allegations of massive fraud on the part of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), even though it is now hailed as one of the most transparent and credible in the world.
"This is going to test everything: the IFE, the Tribunal [TRIFE], and the emerging democratic culture," says Mr. Pastor. Mexico was dogged by 71 years of one-party, authoritarian rule, until President Fox's 2000 victory. "The question is whether people accept decisions by legitimate bodies, or whether they are prepared to make some compromises and accept defeat. That's really what it comes down to."
Obrador said in a press conference Thursday that he would act responsibly, but fears of massive protests have been voiced. "He is going to fire up the crowds Saturday ... he has a messianic tendency," says Grayson. "He believes the system is rotten to the core."
Grayson says he does not expect TRIFE to wait until its final, September deadline to declare a winner because he says the economy would not be able to stand the uncertainty. But he says he expects weeks, if not longer, of anger and protest, on both sides. "The elite is going to mobilize, [so will] the church, the governors, the academic leaders, major figures on the left, the UN observer group, observer groups from the EU," he says.
Since the IFE announced that the preliminary count was too close to call, both candidates have declared themselves the victor repeatedly – which analysts say undermines the electoral process.
"They are all playing public relations games," says Pastor. "It's very much like Bush-Gore. When you are half a point ahead, you want to appear as though you are definitely the president."
Calderón on Thursday called for reconciliation, declaring himself victor as supporters celebrated his narrow edge over Obrador at campaign headquarters. "Starting today, let us help Mexico begin a new era of peace, of reconciliation," he told them. He also told the Associated Press he would offer Obrador a position in his cabinet.
"I think in some ways people think when an election is this close, you should form a united government," says Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies think tank in Washington. But he sees it as a tactic to sway public perception. "It seems they are trying to push a perspective that they've already won, and that [Obrador] is a sore loser."