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Mexican leftist's lead slips in election recount

Written by: Staff
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MEXICO CITY, July 6 (Reuters) A leftist anti-poverty campaigner saw a thin presidential election lead over his conservative rival slip away in a dramatic vote recount that has plunged the country into a political crisis.

In scenes reminiscent of the Florida recount in the US presidential vote in 2000, the divided nation bit its nails as returns showed Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador neck and neck with Felipe Calderon, who ended just ahead in an initial count.

Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City, led pro-US former energy minister Calderon by less than 1.3 percentage points on Wednesday night with returns in from 90 percent of polling stations.

But Calderon was rapidly gaining ground as results came in from north and west Mexico, his strongholds. Officials yesterday said it was still too close to declare a winner from Sunday's election.

Calderon's aides were confident the final result would confirm his victory.

Protests broke out in the capital to press home claims that Lopez Obrador was the victim of fraud in the preliminary count, and he warned electoral authorities to be thorough.

''The stability of the country is at stake,'' he said.

The Harvard-educated Calderon would be an ally of the United States in Latin America, where left-wing leaders critical of Washington have taken power in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela in recent years.

Lopez Obrador, a former Indian welfare officer, has promised to renegotiate a North American trade pact to block cheap US corn and beans entering Mexico as of 2008.

'VERY TIGHT' Luis Carlos Ugalde, the head of the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, refereeing the contest, warned the recount result would be a cliffhanger.

''The margin of difference is undoubtedly going to be very tight at the end,'' he said.

Mexico's stock market plunged 4 percent and its peso fell against the dollar because of the political tension.

''It's more exciting than the World Cup,'' said Jeronimo Aguirre Cruz, a Zapotec Indian lawyer watching news of the recount on television at a bar in the city of Puebla.

President Vicente Fox defeated the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in 2000 elections that ended 71 years of single-party rule. During that time, the PRI presidents handpicked their successors and the PRI often rigged elections.

Initial preliminary results earlier this week gave Calderon a lead of 0.6 points but Lopez Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution complained of irregularities and possible fraud.

''There are many elements to suggest that the population was cheated,'' said Manuel Camacho Solis, an aide to the leftist.

Even so, supporters gathered outside the IFE's building on Wednesday evening where recount results were being announced and began celebrating a Lopez Obrador victory.

''We've won, we've won,'' some 100 people shouted as they jumped up and down. Cars driving by honked their horns.

The festivities cooled off, however, as later returns showed Calderon closing the gap fast.

Official results of the recount showed Lopez Obrador had 36.26 percent of the vote with figures in from 90 percent of polling stations. Calderon, from Fox's ruling National Action Party, was second with 35 percent of the vote.

The loser of the recount is expected to appeal to Mexico's electoral court, which must rule on vote disputes by Aug. 31 and declare a winner by Sept. 6.

Mexico could face two months of legal battles over the results and street protests have raised fears of unrest in a young democracy that is key to US interests over immigration, drug smuggling and security.

The winner will take over from Fox on Dec. 1, inheriting a divided nation and a fierce war against drug smuggling gangs.

REUTERS SK RN0959

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