The conservative candidate Felipe Calderon may have won a razor-thin victory in Sunday's presidential elections in Mexico. However, electoral officials said yesterday the results were too close to call and a recount of all the votes cast would be held on Wednesday.
The suspense in a race that has exposed the deep class and economic divisions in Mexico may therefore not be formally resolved for several more days, sparking fears that political tensions could spill into the streets. Mr Calderon, the chosen heir to outgoing president Vicente Fox, and his leftist foe, the former mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, were claiming themselves the winner.
A preliminary count with most precincts reporting showed Mr Calderon with 36.5 per cent of the votes against 34.5 per cent for Mr Obrador. With 30 million Mexicans at the polls, the two were thus divided by barely 300,000 votes. One electoral official told Reuters Mr Calderon's lead would remain intact.
All eyes were therefore on Mr Obrador, a populist with a firebrand persona, amid concern he might mount legal challenges and call his supporters to stage mass protests if the race is eventually called in favour of his rival.
Late on Sunday, the leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) greeted a huge crowd in Mexico City's main square declaring himself the next president. "Smile. We've already won," he told the throng. " We're going to defend our triumph. We aren't going to let them try to make our results disappear."
By early yesterday, the websites of the PRD and of Mr Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) were trumpeting victory. Mr Calderon, who campaigned on promises of economic continuity and private investment, said a recount was unnecessary. "There is an irreversible result and it is in my favour. The result gives me a very clear victory."
The election is seen as a test of the Mexico's democratic institutions just six years after the stunning win by Mr Fox, which ended seven decades of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI's candidate for president this time, Roberto Madrazo, emerged in a distant third place with 21 per cent of the vote.
Mexico's neighbours, including the US, have been watching to see whether, by embracing Mr Obrador, the country would join other Latin American countries in tilting to the left, following the trend that began with the election eight years ago of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
The financial markets appeared to be preparing for a Calderon win, with the Mexican peso posting its largest gains against the US dollar in six years in early trading. The Calderon-friendly stock exchange advanced on the expectation that the conservative would prevail.
Mr Obrador, who fought the election on a promise to lift up the country's poor with welfare handouts and to challenge the privileges of the elite, said he would abide by the results while reserving the right to challenge them if he suspected fraud.
"From here until Wednesday we are going to have the chance to have all the results, to revise the process in detail," he said. "We are going to defend the will of the people if it favours us." Asked if he would accept defeat he said: "Yes. But if we have the proof that shows the opposite, we are going to make it count."
Mr Obrador's supporters have sore memories of the 1988 election when an apparent win by the left candidate was suddenly reversed in what appears to have been blatant electoral fraud. Many leftists regret they did not mobilise more effectively to challenge the result and fear similar fraud could be attempted now.