On a normally tranquil street corner opposite the campaign headquarters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s leftwing candidate in last Sunday’s presidential election, a group of people are growing visibly angry.
“We reject the fraud that was forced on the Mexican people,” shouts Ernesto González Ramos, a poorly dressed man with a clenched fist and a face full of fury. “How can they say that it was a victory for democracy? It is an insult for me, my family and my country.”
This week’s vote was meant to draw a line under what has been one of Mexico’s most closely fought and intemperate elections. Instead, allegations of foul play, combined with the razor-thin margin of victory – Mr López Obrador lost out to the centre-right Felipe Calderón by 0.58 per cent – have polarised the country and fuelled fears of a wave of violent street protests.
On Thursday morning, hours before the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) declared Mr Calderón the winner, Mr López Obrador said he would challenge the election result in court, and called on Mexicans to congregate in Mexico City’s huge Zócalo. The rally is scheduled for Saturday afternoon.
Mr López Obrador’s language was unusually prudent: he referred to his planned protest as “an assembly” and said that he and his Democratic Revolution party (PRD) would “act responsibly”. But calming many of his supporters could prove difficult.
Mauricio Marmolejo, a PRD supporter, says he would allow Mr Calderón’s victory only over his dead body – and those of many Mexican men. “We will take this to its ultimate consequences even if the streets turn to rivers of blood,” he says, stabbing the air time and time again with his finger.
People such as Mr Marmolejo, who travelled from the Pacific state of Nayarit to the capital to join the protests, are convinced that Mr Calderon’s victory was simply the latest in a long line of rigged elections.
In many ways, that perception is not surprising. For decades presidential elections in Mexico were decided long before people went to the polls, with the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) ruling the country for 71 consecutive years before finally relinquishing power in 2000.
One of the most infamous examples of perceived foul play came in 1988 when the highly popular Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, one of the founders of Mr López Obrador’s PRD, lost out to the PRI after a controversial breakdown of the computer system used to calculate votes.
For millions of Mr López Obrador’s supporters, this week’s election triggered memories of that defeat. “This is 1988 all over again,” says one man with wild curly hair and a mouth full of silver crowns. “They did it to us then but they won’t get away with it this time.”
Outside the campaign headquarters of Mr López Obrador, people wave photocopies of hand-written lists of names they claim were either prevented from voting, because there were not enough ballot slips in their polling stations, or were simply “removed” from the electoral register.
Marlen Martínez, who volunteered to be one of the PRD’s representatives at a polling station in La Roma, says she witnessed foul play. There were at least 10 dead people on the electoral register,” she says. “I know that because my grandmother was on the list and she died years ago.”
Manuel Camacho, a PRD congressman and one of Mr López Obrador’s principal strategists, believes the only way to allay suspicions of fraud is to order a manual recount of all the votes cast on Sunday. “We would accept the result of a manual recount,” he told the FT this week. “They should open up all the ballot boxes.”
But Mr Calderón, a 43-year-old former energy minister in President Vicente Fox’s current administration, says opening up the boxes would break electoral law and could invalidate the entire election. In an FT interview this week, Mr Calderón said that a full manual recount was “totally out of the question. Not only that but it is illegal.”
Most legal experts agree, though some argue that the constitution is flexible enough to allow a recount, given the exceptional circumstances. The problem for Mr Calderón is that he faces the prospect of taking office on December 1 with millions of voters believing that he did not win fairly.
In the meantime, many Mexicans believe that Saturday afternoon’s rally in the Zócalo could be just the first – and, perhaps, most peaceful – manifestation of growing social unrest.
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