MEXICO CITY - A presidential election without a clear winner Monday set up the greatest test yet of Mexico's young democracy, with ruling-party candidate Felipe Calderon starting to build a government even as his rival vowed to challenge every last vote.
Electoral officials said a preliminary count gave the conservative Calderon an edge of 1 percentage point over Mexico City's leftist former mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. But stirring memories of the 2000 nail-biter in Florida, they refused to declare a winner until an official count that was to begin Wednesday.
Many had predicted violent street protests if the vote was too close to call, but Lopez Obrador supporters apparently were waiting for orders from the leader they revere with a messianic devotion. He was holed up in his apartment with top aides to figure out his next move.
Financial markets rallied on preliminary results that showed Calderon, a fiscally conservative former energy secretary, in the lead. With 97.98 percent of polling stations reporting, Calderon of the National Action Party had 36.37 percent and Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party had 35.37 percent.
Roberto Madrazo of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party was a distant third with 21.55 percent, and minor candidates and write-ins accounted for the rest.
Appearing nearly giddy, Calderon said a 400,000-vote spread showed he clearly won and vowed to build a conciliatory government to mend rifts heightened by the angry campaign in which nearly two-thirds of the 37 million voters chose other candidates.
"It is time to put our divisions behind us," he said.
Calderon brushed off comparisons to the electoral crisis that followed the U.S. 2000 election, in which George W. Bush narrowly defeated Al Gore. He joked that the country's northern neighbor could learn from Mexico.
"We have such advanced institutions that we can do what the United States couldn't," he said.
George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and a former Virginia state legislator, said "the Mexican system is much more transparent" than the U.S. system.
Mexico has a single voter registry, a uniform photo identity card for voters and a national election law, he said, whereas "in the U.S., you have this crazy quilt of 50 state laws," Grayson said.
Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute is legally independent of the government, while in the U.S., partisan state officials tend to oversee the system - something that contributed to controversy over the 2000 presidential election in Florida. The Institute also provides taxpayer financing for political campaigns based on their vote totals in past races, an effort to even the playing field. Mexico sharply limits private campaign contributions.
But the silver-haired Lopez Obrador, famous for mobilizing enormous protests, warned the fight was not over. He said he was asking supporters to help him examine Sunday's vote, widely considered to be the country cleanest ever.
"Have patience," he told supporters. "We are always going to act responsibly. If we lose the elections I will recognize that. But if we won the vote, I'm going to defend my triumph."
Lopez Obrador's supporters compared the vote to that of 1988, when many believe leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was robbed of a victory by the infamous election rigging of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
"We won, but they're going to take it away from us," said security guard Victor Ramirez, 43. "There are going to be vote challenges, and I think there will even be demonstrations."
Madrazo's Institutional Revolution Party - which lost the presidency in 2000 for the first time in seven decades - came in third in the congressional vote as well, but the party could emerge as the powerbroker as the new president-elect seeks to build consensus in a divided Congress.
In congressional voting, National Action had the most votes - nearly 34 percent. But because of a complex system of proportional seats it was unclear how many lawmakers each party would have.
Certainly, no party was near to a majority, meaning the next president will have to reach out to his rivals to get anything done.
"This is basically a formula for gridlock," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On the Net:
http://www.ife.org.mx (has English language site.)