MEXICO CITY – The official count in Mexico's presidential election concluded on Friday with results showing that former ruling party candidate Enrique Pena Nieto won by a 6.6 percentage-point margin, almost exactly the same lead as a vote-night quick count gave him.
The final count by the country's electoral authority, which included a ballot-by-ballot recount at more than half of polling places, showed Pena Nieto getting 38.21 percent of votes in Sunday's election. Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who got 31.59 percent.
Lopez Obrador said he will file a formal legal challenge to the vote count in electoral courts next week, based on the allegation that Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, engaged in vote-buying that illegally tilted millions of votes. PRI officials deny the charge.
"Rivers of illicitly obtained money were used to buy millions of votes," Lopez Obrador told a news conference Friday. He also claimed that the recount of ballots at over half of polling places had not been carried out as thoroughly as promised.
Josefina Vazquez Mota of the conservative National Action Party got 25.41 percent of votes cast, and the small New Alliance Party got 2.29 percent, barely passing the two-percent barrier needed to preserve the party's place on future ballots.
Almost 2.5 percent of ballots where voided; while some voters in Mexico void their ballots as a form of protest, some also simply make mistakes in marking them.
The final vote count must be certified in September by the Federal Electoral Tribunal. The tribunal has declined to overturn previously contested elections, including a 2006 presidential vote that was far closer than Sunday's.
Accusations of vote-buying began surfacing in June, but sharpened early this week as thousands of people rushed to grocery stores on the outskirts of Mexico City to redeem pre-paid gift cards worth about 100 pesos ($7.50). Many said they got the cards from PRI supporters before Sunday's elections.
Lopez Obrador said millions of voters had received either pre-paid cards, cash, groceries, construction materials or appliances. Lopez Obrador would not rule out street protests, like the one he led in 2006 to protest alleged fraud in the presidential elections of that year, which he narrowly lost to President Felipe Calderon.
But he said Thursday that his challenge of the results would be channeled through legal venues, like the electoral institute and courts.
"We have acted and we will continue to act in a responsible way, adhering to the legal procedure. Nobody can say we are violating the law," Lopez Obrador said.
Leonardo Valdes, the president of the Federal Electoral Institute, said he doesn't see any grounds for overturning the results.
"I do not see any justification for rejecting the entirety of the election results," Valdes said. "Rejecting the results would be like rejecting the effort of those 50 million voters."
However, he said the institute, Mexico's chief electoral watchdog agency, had begun an investigation into the gift cards, and had requested that the PRI and the grocery store chain that issued the cards turn over information.
In an interview with the newspaper Excelsior published Friday, Calderon said "electoral authorities have an obligation, of course, to give us an answer" about the allegations, adding "what we need, in any case, are legal and institutional reforms, so that this kind of accusations don't arise again."
Simply giving away such gifts is not illegal under Mexican electoral law, as long as the expense is reported to electoral authorities. Giving gifts to influence votes is a crime, though is not generally viewed as grounds for overturning an election.
While Vazquez Mota is not challenging the results, she also said Thursday that campaign spending violations had marred the vote.
"We need electoral authorities to conduct a detailed review of campaign spending that obviously exceeded legal limits, and that was also associated with vote buying," Vazquez Mota said. "In this election there were clear circumstances of inequity that had a decisive effect on the vote results."
Vazquez Mota said that while the complaints wouldn't invalidate the election results, they should motivate changes in electoral laws to prevent such practices in the future.
PRI spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said Thursday that the gift-card event had been "a theatrical representation" mounted by the left. Sanchez claimed supporters of Lopez Obrador took hundreds of people to the stores, dressed them in PRI T-shirts, gave them gift cards, emptied store shelves to create an appearance of panic buying, and brought TV cameras in to create the false impression that the PRI had given out the cards.
"They mounted a clumsy farce, a theatrical representation in which they dressed people in PRI T-shirts," Sanchez said.
Earlier this week The Associated Press separately interviewed at least a dozen shoppers at one of the stores, all of whom said they had been given the cards by PRI supporters. There was no evidence of any Lopez Obrador supporters at the store.
Cesar Yanez, the spokesman for Lopez Obrador's campaign, denied the PRI accusation.
"That's absurd. I don't think even they believe that," said Yanez. "They would do better to just accept their responsibility."
Lopez Obrador presented thousands of more cards Thursday that he said had been given to PRI voters in exchange for support, saying that scheme and other vote-buying had occurred in a number of states, and brought the PRI millions of illegal votes. The candidate said his team would provide a better estimate of votes affected in the coming days.
"We're getting a sense of the size of the vote-buying and the damage it caused," campaign coordinator Ricardo Monreal said.
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.