MEXICO CITY -- Mexicans braced for a protracted Florida 2000-style vote-counting battle yesterday in their deadlocked presidential contest. Conservative Felipe Calderon maintained a thin lead, but leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador demanded to see all the ballots.
With more than 98.2 percent of the preliminary vote counted from Sunday's unprecedented, too-close-to-call balloting, Calderon held a 1 percentage point advantage yesterday - 36.37 percent to 35.36 percent.
Calderon's margin held steady throughout the day of counting. Many analysts believed it looked increasingly irreversible, and Mexico's markets were rallying.
An official result won't be announced until possibly Sunday, after the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, begins a more formal count tomorrow.
While both candidates repeated their election-night boasts of victory, Lopez Obrador indicated he could challenge the final results before Mexico's electoral tribunal, which would not have to rule until Aug. 31. In the meantime, the former Mexico City mayor could call for street marches as a show of force.
"If we lose the elections, I will recognize that, but if we won the vote, even by one or two votes, I am going to defend my triumph," a somber Lopez Obrador said on Televisa.
The capital's streets were calm yesterday, although frustrations boiled over in the early morning hours when some of the ex-mayor's supporters drove through the city center yelling "Fraud! Fraud!" after the electoral institute refused to announce a winner.
"Have patience," Lopez Obrador urged his supporters yesterday morning, before shuttling between his modest apartment and his campaign headquarters to consult with advisers.
Calderon, barely trying to hide his smile, appeared triumphant on the same Televisa program a few minutes later.
Election officials said they were pleased at how smoothly the balloting went Sunday. They said they could see little basis for a serious legal challenge by Lopez Obrador.
"It's going to be very difficult to have a Florida here," said Alejandro Trelles, an IFE adviser, referring to the protracted Bush-Gore legal battle in 2000. "The election was impeccable - no serious incidents, no elements to impugn."
The IFE was created in 1990, two years after Lopez Obrador's party colleague, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, was allegedly robbed of the presidency by the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
The IFE is widely respected for its independence and transparency, although Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolutionary Party raised questions about some of its decisions during the campaign. Its sister agency, the tribunal, has final say in all electoral matters.
One question analysts raised about election was the 800,000 votes nullified for various reasons. Lopez Obrador would have to win almost half of them, considered nearly impossible.
Another potential problem is that the PRI also has warned that it might contest the results. Its candidate, Roberto Madrazo, finished in third place.
The coming days will be a test not only of Mexico's unfolding democracy, but of Lopez Obrador. The ex-mayor saw himself as the front-runner for nearly two years, and he is a master at putting masses of his supporters in the streets for political purposes. Pamela Starr, an expert on Mexico and the Latin American left for the Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm in Washington, said Lopez Obrador appeared "stunned" Sunday night at how he could have lost what he thought was a sure thing.
"I think he is sincere in saying he will not challenge the results if he feels they were free and fair," Starr said. "He needs to find a way to balance his pragmatism with the emotions of his followers on the streets."
She said she expects the ex-mayor to wait until after the official IFE count tomorrow to call for a huge march of support Sunday before he takes his challenge to the tribunal.
Putting protesters in the streets could reinforce the image his enemies try to pin on him of rabble-rouser, while his supporters are demanding that he not cave in as they believe Cardenas did in 1988.
Hugh Dellios writes for the Chicago Tribune.