Leftists defiant as Calderon is finally declared president

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The Independent US

Felipe Calderon of the conservative ruling party was belatedly declared the winner of July's fiercely contested national election in Mexico as the country's top electoral tribunal voted unanimously yesterday to confirm him as president-elect. The decision, which was widely expected, cannot be appealed.

Amended results gathered after a partial recount in 9 per cent of Mexico's precincts showed that Harvard-educated Mr Calderon beat his leftist foe, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, by a diminished 233,831 votes out of a total of 41.6 million cast, equivalent to about half a per cent. This was slightly less than his already razor-thin margin of victory of 240,000 reported after the first count.

The ruling means that Mr Calderon, 44, a former energy secretary under the outgoing president, Vicente Fox, will take office on 1 December for a six-year term. The long-delayed confirmation of his victory will be welcomed by Washington, which hardly relished the possibility of Mexico taking a sharp leftward turn like many other Latin American countries.

The political turmoil that followed the election may not be over, however. The partial recount came after Mr Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City, alleged fraud in the 2 July election and refused to accept the initial results, demanding either a full recount or new elections. He was granted neither. He has said he will ignore the court's ruling and may consider setting up a parallel government.

Mexico City's business and tourist district has been under virtual siege since the July election after Mr Lopez Obrador ordered followers to establish protest encampments down its main boulevard and in its historic central square, the Zocalo.

Last Friday, members of the leftist PRD party stormed the podium inside Congress preventing President Fox from delivering his last state of the nation speech.

The seven-member tribunal said it found little to support Mr Lopez Obrador's allegations of fraud and vote-rigging. It said that the election, held under the gaze of European Union observers, was largely efficient and fair to all parties. But it did reprimand Mr Fox, saying he had illegally intervened in the race by commenting on the campaign of Mr Calderon as the candidate of his National Action Party.

"There are no perfect elections," commented one of the tribunal's members, Judge Alfonsina Berta Navarro Hidalgo. She admitted that the court had found evidence of some problems, but not enough to annul the election. Even as the tribunal held its meeting, the sound of fireworks being detonated outside by followers of Mr Lopez Obrador could be heard inside the chamber. The court's president, Leonel Castillo, called on Mexicans to unite and heal the deep divisions the election revealed. "I hope we conclude this electoral process leaving confrontation behind," he said.

The dispute has polarised Mexico largely down class lines. Mr Calderon, a grey public figure with scant charisma, will face huge challenges healing the rift and asserting his authority. While recent polls have shown deepening anger over Mr Lopez Obrador's post-election strategy of protest - even among some of his erstwhile supporters - he still commands the backing of millions among Mexico's poor.

There have been signs that some of Mr Lopez Obrador's supporters have gradually become resigned to a Calderon presidency. In recent days some of the tents along the Reforma Boulevard have been largely empty. Protesters gathered outside the tribunal building on Monday night vowing to prevent the judges from issuing their ruling, but only a handful were still there yesterday morning.

The next possible flashpoint will come on 16 September when President Fox should traditionally appear in the Zocalo to mark Mexico's Independence Day. Mr Lopez Obrador has said he will use the square for a so-called convention of his followers. He will ask for a decision on whether he should carry out his threat unilaterally to declare himself the new president and set up a parallel government.

"For Mexico, in historical terms, that could be like a political Waterloo," said Homero Aridjis, a poet and newspaper columnist.

Mr Lopez Obrador contended after yesterday's ruling that the court " does not take into account what is actually happening in the country".

He added: "The court is going to be questioned seriously about its decision."