MEXICO CITY -- In a watershed turning point for Mexico, the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party prepared Sunday night to celebrate what a spokesman called the “resounding triumph” of its presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto
Throngs of supporters flocked to the headquarters of the PRI, as the party is known by its Spanish initials, to celebrate the anticipated return to power of a party that kept a monopolistic grip on Mexico for an uninterrupted seven decades.
“Tonight, Enrique Peña Nieto is the next president of … Mexico,” said Luis Videgaray, his campaign manager, citing exit polls that he said showed “a resounding triumph” and an “indisputable” victory by the PRI candidate .
An exit poll from the GEA-ISA polling firm, gave Peña Nieto, a boyish-faced former governor, 42 percent of the vote, compared with 31 percent for his nearest rival, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution.
Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party and Gabriel Quadri de la Torre of New Alliance also vied for the presidency.
Many Mexicans voted in a sour mood over drug-war violence and an economy only recently gaining steam. They were ready to give a new chance to a party that ruled from 1929 until 2000, casting aside concerns over its autocratic past.
Scattered irregularities were reported at a few of the nation’s 143,000 voting stations, but for the most part the vote appeared calm and orderly.
In a closely watched race in the capital, exit polls gave a landslide victory to the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s Miguel Angel Mancera, allowing the party to hang on to Mexico City Hall, which it has controlled for a decade and a half.
It is an election that has been closely watched in the United States. Not only does the United States share a nearly 2,000 mile border with Mexico, but the two countries have key mutual interests in areas such as trade, energy, homeland security and migration. Mexico is the third largest U.S. trading partner (after China and Canada) and also a vital source of crude oil to U.S. markets.
As many as six million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico and 10 million U.S. citizens visit Mexico every year. Increasingly, criminal gangs in Mexico have tentacles that reach into U.S. cities.
The apparent return of the PRI is an about-face for Mexico. Mexicans fought for decades to topple the PRI from its 71-year grip on power, eventually ousting the party in 2000.
Some critics say a PRI triumph would lurch Mexico backward to its authoritarian past. Supporters say the PRI has learned from its past and won’t rule as it once did, even if some within its ranks do not embrace the change.
The party would face opposition in Congress, a robust media, a largely independent Supreme Court and strengthened civil society groups that employ social media tools aggressively.
“Mexico is more globalized that it was 12 years ago. That means a party can’t do the same things it did 12 years ago,” Juan Rafael Aguilar, an unemployed business administrator, said after voting in the capital’s Magdalena Contreras district.
In a sign of the forces that will keep an eye on the PRI, when the PRI’s president, Pedro Joaquin Coldwell, entered a polling station and cut in line, chants and shouts of “Corrupto!” rang in the air from angry voters. A witness shot the scene with a cellular telephone and the video quickly splashed around the Internet.
Many Mexicans feel frustration at the past 12 years of rule by the center-right National Action Party, which failed to introduce wholesale reforms of a PRI-designed political system.
“At the end, the lasting impression is of enormous wasted opportunity,” Jorge Zepeda Patterson, a political scientist and columnist, wrote Sunday in El Universal newspaper Sunday.
Under President Felipe Calderon, the party brought U.S.-Mexico security cooperation to unprecedented levels. But while deploying soldiers to the streets, and capturing numerous drug barons, it failed to rein in runaway killings and rampant violence that have left pockets of the country under control of gangsters.
Calderon treats the toll from crime-related killings as a state secret, wary that the bloodletting will stain his legacy. Outside experts say they believe the toll has surpassed 55,000 deaths since late 2006.
As the PRI seemed on the threshold of returning to power, the election had the feel of a watershed, a major redrawing of the political map.
In addition to the presidency, Mexico’s 79.4 million voters were also replacing all 128 senators and 500 members of the lower-house Chamber of Deputies, as well as more than 1,400 state and local officials. Experts said the PRI would obtain a relative majority in both houses, and maybe even an absolute majority in one.
Mexicans also voted for governors of six states and the mayor of Mexico City, a position with powers equal to a governor and widely considered the second-most important political post in the country after the president.
The PRI is expected to win an additional three states — Jalisco, Chiapas and Morelos — beyond the 20 states the party already controls.
Mexico does not have a runoff system, and the presidential candidate who wins the most votes Sunday will take office Dec. 1 for a six-year term.
Most eyes were on Peña Nieto, whose triumph many Mexicans figured was a foregone conclusion. The PRI united around the former governor of the State of Mexico, who wed a soap opera star and received open cheerleading from the nation’s biggest network, Televisa.
Angered by that apparent bias, tens of thousands of young Mexicans took to the streets in May, an impromptu student movement that instilled some life into a campaign that did not deal deeply on issues such as corruption and security.
The one-time margin of about 30 percentage points that Peña Nieto held over his rivals a year ago diminished sharply during the three-month campaign. But the candidate, handsome and genial, drew swoons on the campaign trail, with women clasping at his forearms at campaign rallies, leaving red welts.
Polls found that Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor who barely lost a 2006 presidential candidacy, gained ground in recent weeks as the No. 2 candidate, raising questions about how he might respond if the vote is close.
Lopez Obrador and his supporters blocked Mexico City’s main boulevard for six weeks after the 2006 vote, claiming fraud.
This is no time for the country to go in reverse,” Lopez Obrador said early Sunday after casting his ballot.
The founder of Lopez Obrador’s party, former presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, dismissed possible claims of voter fraud.
“Everything is possible but I don’t see it,” Cardenas said.
Whoever moves into Los Pinos, the presidential palace, Dec. 1, will find good and bad news on the security front. For the first time in years, the homicide rate is falling. But the criminal landscape is unstable. Powerful criminal organizations, like Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, face several upstart crime groups.
Surprisingly, public security was not a major issue in the campaign. All candidates vowed to keep the army on the streets for the foreseeable future.
Rather, how to improve a limping economy and create jobs was a main concern of voters.
On that front, the winner may have an easier time. The lackluster U.S. economic recovery has not been much of a drag on Mexico, whose economy is forecast to grow 4 percent this year and 3.8 percent next year. Even so, Mexico’s growth has been modest over much of the past two decades.