Image: Lopez Obrador
Luis Acosta  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador greets supporters during a massive march on July 16 in Mexico City. Lopez Obrador is likely to stage protests if his opponent is ruled the winner of the vote.
updated 7/28/2006 4:00:31 PM ET 2006-07-28T20:00:31

The future of Mexico’s young democracy lies in the hands of seven judges who have the final word on a disputed presidential election that has threatened the nation’s stability and divided the poor against the rich.

The magistrates have shown toughness and independence while ruling on nearly 20,000 electoral disputes. They include Mexico’s first female district judge and a respected author who has presented his books on ethics and democracy around the globe.

But the jurists have never faced a challenge like this. Mexicans are relying on them to find a peaceful solution to a battle between Felipe Calderon, the ruling party candidate backed by the business community, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a fiery populist who has mobilized millions.

An official count gave Calderon a lead of less than 0.6 percentage point. Despite the uncertainty, he said Friday he was setting up a committee to begin laying the groundwork for his administration.

Over the next month, the Federal Electoral Tribunal will comb through mountains of paperwork documenting 364 complaints from the parties before listening to hours of testimony and making a ruling.

Judges have three options
They face three choices: declaring a winner, ordering a recount or annulling the vote, all by Sept. 6.

Each choice could have grave consequences.

If the judges confirm Calderon won the July 2 election, Lopez Obrador is likely to reject the ruling and stage massive protests.

If they order a recount, they risk weakening a law designed to combat fraud by prohibiting ballot boxes from being opened unless there is evidence of irregularities.

If they annul the election, they will threaten the stability of Mexico, leaving the country with an interim leader for more than a year. No candidate has supported annulling the vote.

“These judges have impeccable credentials,” said George Grayson of Virginia’s College of William & Mary. “They have stepped on everybody’s toes in delivering more than 20,000 decisions. I think they will deliver a deliberate, fair and impartial judgment.”

The judges are the country’s highest paid public officials with salaries of about $415,000 a year to ensure no one can buy them off, and Mexican law leaves matters largely up to their discretion. This will likely be their biggest decision before six of the seven judges end their 10-year term in October. One was chosen in 2003.

Since the Senate confirmed them as the country’s first electoral judges, they have nullified 17 local, state and congressional elections, ruling against all three major parties. The biggest case was the 2000 gubernatorial race in Lopez Obrador’s home state of Tabasco, where the judges ruled that the ruling-party governor interfered.

Lopez Obrador has alleged the same about President Vicente Fox in the presidential race and is banking on the law's ambiguity to win a recount of all 41 million votes. The ruling National Action Party says a full recount violates Mexican law.

Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party says it has found irregularities at 40 percent of the 130,488 polling places. It also has said Calderon ran a dirty campaign that gave him an unfair advantage.

Election deemed clean
The court could rule unfair electoral conditions altered the results and annul the election. Mexico's Congress then would have to name an interim president by a two-thirds vote and call new elections within 18 months.

But Grayson said the court is unlikely to do that. When it threw out the Tabasco race, “the fraud was ubiquitous, it was everywhere.” Electoral officials and most international observers have said the July 2 election was largely clean.

“I don’t think there's a snowball’s chance in the Sonoran desert that they will annul this election,” Grayson said.

A poll published Thursday by El Universal newspaper found 48 percent of Mexicans surveyed support a recount and 28 percent were against the idea. The same poll, however, found only 16 percent would protest if the court ruled Calderon had won. The company Ipsos-Bimsa interviewed 1,000 adults across Mexico between July 21-24 and the poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

In an interview with the Mexican news magazine Milenio before the election, tribunal president Leonel Castillo indicated the court would be unlikely to order a recount because the polling place reports used to tally the official count were reliable.

But that isn’t stopping Lopez Obrador. The former Mexico City mayor has called for supporters to fill the city’s main Zocalo plaza Sunday, the third mass demonstration he has held since the election to demand a recount.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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