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Mexico's president declares victory after recall vote, which critics say was rigged

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It was no surprise that Mexico's president survived a recall election yesterday. The president, who is indeed popular, had called for it himself in the first place, expecting a win and labeling the vote a victory for participatory democracy. But most Mexicans did not participate, and opponents say it was too costly. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: This morning at his daily 7 a.m. press conference, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador declared victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Yesterday's recall vote was a complete success, he said. About 16.5 million Mexicans went to the polls with about 90% of them voting for the president to finish out the rest of his six-year term. Opponents had called for a boycott of the vote, saying the exercise was a waste of money and rigged in favor of Lopez Obrador. The president says those politicians are anti-democratic and bent on upending his agenda to help the poor. "The recall is a new tool for Mexicans in the future to throw out bad leaders," he says.

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LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "So that the people always have the reins of power in their hands." Jose Abraham Gonzalez, a 64-year-old computer programmer, totally agrees. He spoke with me as he came out of his polling place in Mexico City. He voted for this president to stay in power, but he says he wants the options to throw a bum out in the future.

JOSE ABRAHAM GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says we should be able to get rid of them at the halfway mark in three years, closer to like the U.S. term of four years. Mexican presidents serve for six years without reelection, which is too long if you have a bad leader. And he says Mexico has had plenty of those. Carlos Bravo, a political analyst at the CIDE Research Institute in Mexico City, says in theory, recalls are good.

CARLOS BRAVO: It might be good for the future, but it was useless for the present.

KAHN: He says there was no doubt that Lopez Obrador would win the recall. It wasn't necessary, and it was very costly - about $80 million. And only about 18% of Mexican registered voters turned out. An ouster would've required a 40% turnout anyway. Bravo says the process was corrupted by Lopez Obrador to energize his base.

BRAVO: It really became a propagandistic tool instead of what it's supposed to be, a civic mechanism of control over power.

KAHN: And analyst Daniel Kerner of the political risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group says the recall gave Lopez Obrador lots of air time to continue his attacks against independent agencies. Kerner says this is Lopez Obrador's broader agenda.

DANIEL KERNER: Which is essentially dismantle many of the institutions that were created when Mexico opened up since the '80s in terms of the economy as well as politically in order, really, to strengthen his own power and the power of the president.

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KAHN: In Mexico City's historic downtown, many Mexicans had Palm Sunday on their minds than voting...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: ...Like Mario Roberto Cabanas, who was waiting outside. He said he would probably vote to keep Lopez Obrador in office.

MARIO ROBERTO CABANAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But he says he felt like the whole effort was dividing the country and distracting from real problems like rising crime and inflation. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.