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After leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador lost the tightest presidential election in Mexican history, he launched a legal challenge through the courts and a more provocative challenge on the streets. On Monday, the federal electoral tribunal rejected Mr. Lopez Obrador's claim that he was robbed of victory through widespread fraud and other illegalities, and it refused to order a recount of all the ballots. That should be the final word on an election that outside observers had earlier said was both clean and fair. But Mr. Lopez Obrador refuses to accept the decision of the Mexican people. In so doing, he puts at risk the very democratic freedoms he claims to cherish.

The panel of seven judges did annul almost 159,000 ballots after a partial recount of returns from close to 12,000 polling stations. They ruled that the ballots had been spoiled through human error, not deliberate acts of fraud, and that the mistakes had not done more harm to Mr. Lopez Obrador than to his conservative opponent, Filipe Calderon. "Based on all the annulments that were deemed necessary, all the parties lost a considerable number of votes, but that did not affect the result," Magistrate Jose Alejandro Luna Ramos said, as the judges explained the reasons for their ruling in open court.

Mr. Lopez Obrador accuses the judges of being in the pockets of the ruling elite and says their finding is part of a conspiracy to keep him from power. "With this decision, the constitutional order is broken and the road is opened for a usurper to occupy the presidency through a coup d'état." But the former populist mayor of Mexico City has done more than hurl incendiary invective at the institutions of the state. He has vowed to continue the fight to "save democracy" and has raised the spectre of an "alternative" government -- with him as president -- that could collect taxes and provide services to people who feel ignored by those currently in power. He has already shown his ability to rouse his supporters to action, encouraging mass demonstrations that blocked major roads in the capital and brought commerce to a standstill. Now he is talking of actions that threaten the very survival of Mexico's still fragile democracy. No wonder many of his own supporters have said he should accept that he lost.

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In Mexico, the electoral process was revamped in the 1990s with the specific intention of preventing the sort of manipulation, fraud and corruption that was once so prevalent when the country was in the seven-decade grip of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Both the non-partisan Federal Election Institute, which runs elections, and the electoral court were the direct result of those reforms.

Mr. Lopez Obrador needs to follow the path of all candidates who lose tough democratic elections. He should respect the judicial process, accept defeat and either retire from the field or channel his anger and frustration into avenues that make the system work better, not those that would tear it apart.

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