MEXICO CITY - Discovery of 3.5 million uncounted ballots in Mexico's disputed presidential election cast doubt on early projections showing conservative Felipe Calderon in the lead, raising fears of prolonged uncertainty and political unrest.
Hinting at insider corruption and citing a series of voting "irregularities," advisers to leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador are demanding a manual recount of every single vote and did not rule out street protests to ratchet up pressure on federal election authorities.
"You cannot come to a final outcome if you do not count all the votes," said Manuel Camacho Solis, a top Lopez Obrador aide. "We are going to demand that the votes are counted ... We have the right to go to the streets and we have the right to express our opinion with full freedom."
A simple recount begins Wednesday, but a full-blown election contest could drag Mexico through weeks of uncertainty and tension.
Calderon's ruling National Action Party, or PAN, dismissed the allegations of irregularities, portraying Lopez Obrador as a sore loser.
The standoff has left Mexico the equivalent of one hanging chad away from a Latin American version of the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election - only with a greater potential for unrest among the country's poor masses, who already are receptive to the idea of fraudulent elections.
There had long been fears that a close election split could spark violent protests and plunge Mexico into a destabilizing crisis. Those fears seemed to ease after early results showed Calderon clinging to a thin but seemingly stable lead. Now the edgy feel is back, even though Lopez Obrador and his advisers have promised to act responsibly and work within established electoral procedures.
As of late Monday, preliminary vote totals released by Mexico's Federal Election Institute (IFE) showed Calderon leading with a little more than 400,000 votes, or 1 percent more than Lopez Obrador. A mandatory recount of vote tallies is scheduled to begin Wednesday - and the revelation that 3.5 million votes went uncounted has become Exhibit A in the growing controversy.
Luis Carlos Ugalde, head of Mexico's Federal Election Institute, acknowledged that the ballots had not been included in Election Day reports. He stressed in an interview with Televisa that it doesn't matter because an official winner won't be announced until the agency concludes its nationwide recount, perhaps by Friday.
He said the tally sheets representing the millions of uncounted votes were set aside on election night because of various "inconsistencies," such as indecipherable markings on the voting booth records.
Asked if the tallies will be included in the recount, Ugalde told the Televisa network: "Of course they will. These tallies will have to be reviewed at a table with representatives from all the parties."
The elections chief also warned that the preliminary tally, known by the Spanish initials PREP, shouldn't have been taken as projecting a winner. That was a rebuke to both candidates who declared themselves victorious.
It's unclear how important the uncounted votes will turn out to be. Some might be ruled invalid. Lopez Obrador would have to win an unusually large portion of the uncounted 3.5 million votes to reverse Calderon's lead.
Lopez Obrador aides said the votes were evenly distributed throughout the country and not concentrated in one particular region.
"I think that, given the margin, I think it will be very difficult for the vote to overturn," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank in Washington. He was in Mexico to observe the elections. "We still have to wait and see for the counting of the votes and then probably the adjudication process. This is probably going to go until Aug. 31."
That's a reference to the deadline the IFE has set for hearing election challenges. By law, a winner must be announced by Sept. 6, officials said.
Even if the 3.5 million votes don't swing the election, the PRD says it has other "inconsistencies" that prove the results are flawed, including double voting in a Calderon stronghold. They also say that hundreds of vote tallies show markings in congressional races but inexplicably no preference in the presidential contest.
A McClatchy photographer working in the troubled southern state of Oaxaca witnessed discrepancies between the vote tallies posted outside voting stations in the town of Tlalcolula and the data appearing on the IFE's Web site. The photographer also found examples of the presidential vote not counted.
PRD officials are also hinting that Calderon may have a conflict of interest in the election agency itself, saying that could explain why computerized returns showed both candidates actually shedding votes in the wee hours of election night.
Namely, Camacho, the Lopez Obrador adviser, said the campaign was looking into allegations that Calderon's brother-in-law had been involved in the creation of vote-tallying software used by the IFE.
"We are investigating this," he said.
Calderon's brother-in-law Diego Zavala has confirmed that he participated in a bid for election-count software but didn't win. The weekly news magazine Proceso on June 11 reported that the top election official overseeing election-reporting software, Rodrigo Morales, is an old friend of Calderon, raising questions of conflict of interest.
Arturo Sarukan, a top Calderon adviser, referred questions about election software to the IFE. As for the broader allegations of irregularities and skewed results, he said he was certain that Calderon's victory would hold and that the PRD's drive to discredit the IFE, one of the few Mexican institutions held in high esteem, would backfire.
"We haven't seen any irregularities," he said. "They are making a fatal error."
Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a political analyst, columnist and spokesman for former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, said the IFE's technical work is above question. It's communication with the public and political parties, however, leaves much to be desired.
"The IFE has been real slow in terms of providing information. It has allowed this vacuum (on information), he said, adding, "If you give people excuses to question things, somebody is bound to do it."