MEXICO CITY (AP) – Leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador urged his supporters to take to the streets Saturday, claiming the governing party stole its victory in a close election that he said was more fraudulent than those held during 71 years of one-party rule.

The protests could mark a turning point in what has so far been a peaceful campaign to succeed Vicente Fox.

In a meeting with foreign correspondents, Lopez Obrador said there were more irregularities in Sunday’s balloting than in elections under the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, which ruled Mexico until it was ousted by Fox in 2000.

Election officials say Felipe Calderon of Fox’s conservative National Action Party beat Lopez Obrador by less than 244,000 votes out of a total of 41 million ballots.

“The National Action Party learned from the fraudulent practices of the PRI and it exceeded them,” Lopez Obrador said.

Lopez Obrador, of the Democratic Revolution Party, asked protesters to be peaceful during a demonstration Saturday afternoon, but he warned the government would be responsible for any angry flare-ups because officials rejected his demand for a manual recount of Sunday’s vote.

His conservative rival, Felipe Calderon, meanwhile, acted as if his victory was secure and took a congratulatory call from President Bush on Friday.

Mexico’s top election court has yet to name a president-elect because it must first weigh complaints of illegal campaign practices and certify the vote count.

Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, has millions of extremely devoted followers and views street protests as an effective means of pressuring the government and the courts. He claims hundreds of thousands of votes for him remain uncounted, miscounted or voided, and that a manual recount would confirm that.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City urged Americans “to avoid downtown Mexico City.

Calderon won by a margin of 0.6 percent, according to a final tally announced Thursday. Electoral authorities say the law allows a manual recount only in polling places where credible evidence of irregularities exist.

Lopez Obrador’s supporters say that exception applies to at least 50,000 of the approximately 130,000 polling places. But they want all the ballot boxes opened.

“Those who oppose clearing up these election results are the ones who could start to generate unrest and discontent,” said Alberto Anaya, a leader of Lopez Obrador’s coalition.

Election monitors from the European Union said they found no irregularities in the final count. The team leader, Jose Ignacio Salafranca, said it could do a new review after the legal period for parties to contend the results was finished.

The parties have until Monday to file complaints with the seven-judge court, which can order investigations of the evidence, change the official results and even order new elections. The tribunal has until Sept. 6 to certify the winner, and its decision is final. The new president takes office Dec. 1.

Cheerful and confident in a meeting with foreign reporters Friday, Calderon said he would support immigration reforms in Washington and create relief programs to help Mexican farmers hurt when a clause under the North American Free Trade Agreement allows for U.S. corn and bean imports in 2008.

While violent protests appear unlikely, the odds are Lopez Obrador will never recognize Calderon’s victory.

“The message that he’s sending is, ‘They wouldn’t let me win,’ that the umpire was unfair, that the government was unfair,” political analyst Oscar Aguilar said.

“He will never concede defeat. Once the election results are certified, he will open a permanent campaign of criticizing the government.”

Lopez Obrador’s campaign coordinator, Ricardo Monreal, pledged that “we will do everything peacefully and in accordance with the law.” But the former mayor has, in the past, headed disruptive protests.

Last year, he led huge street protests that forced Fox to fire his attorney general and drop a legal case that would have kept Lopez Obrador out of the presidential race for ignoring a judge’s order.

In 1996, he led farmers and fishermen in sometimes violent takeovers of state-owned oil wells to demand compensation for damages from an oil spill.

In 1995, when he raised accusations of fraud in Tabasco state elections, he led months of road caravans and marches and set up a protest camp in Mexico City’s main square.

But these days, Lopez Obrador must walk a tightrope: If he appears too radical, he risks hurting his party and its chances in the next presidential elections in 2012. If he appears too moderate, he risks disappointing his core supporters.

“His political stock would increase greatly for 2012” if he found a way to concede defeat gracefully, Aguilar said.

AP-ES-07-08-06 1346EDT

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