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Mexico voters could return to party of 'old days'

On the cusp of a likely historic shift, Mexican voters went to the polls Sunday widely expected to elect Enrique Pena Nieto to the presidency and return the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party to power.

Many voters cast ballots in a sour mood over drug war violence and an economy only recently gaining steam, poised to give a new chance to a party that ruled during seven uninterrupted decades, trusting it has abandoned its authoritarian and often corrupt ways.

Early reports said the vast majority of the nation’s 143,000 voting stations opened normally, without interference. Long lines snaked out of precincts in the capital.

Pena Nieto, a boyish-faced 45-year-old former governor representing the PRI, as the party is known by its Spanish initials, faced Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party and Gabriel Quadri de la Torre of New Alliance.

Mexicans fought for decades to topple the PRI from its 71-year monopolistic grip on power, eventually ousting the party in 2000.

Some critics say a triumph of the PRI would lurch Mexico backward to its authoritarian past. Others suggest that Mexico has changed and the PRI can’t rule as it once did, even if some within its ranks sought to.

The party would face opposition in Congress, a rambunctious media, a largely independent Supreme Court and strengthened civil society groups.

“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.

Many Mexicans feel frustration at the past 12 years of rule by the center-right National Action Party (PAN), which failed to usher in 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 in the 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.

Perhaps because 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 were also voting 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. City Hall was expected to remain in the hands of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution.

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.

Never have so many election observers flooded across Mexico for a vote. Leonardo Valdes Zurita, chief of the Federal Electoral Institute, said more than 28,000 observers were accredited, including monitors from 65 nations, and the hemisphere’s oldest regional group, the Organization of American States.

Most eyes were on Pena Nieto, the standard bearer of the PRI, whose triumph many Mexicans figured was a foregone conclusion. The party 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 failed to touch deeply on issues such as corruption and security.

The one-time margin of some 30 percent that Pena Nieto held over his rivals a year ago diminished sharply during the three-month formal 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 lost a 2006 presidential bid by only 0.56 percent, 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.

In recent weeks, Lopez Obrador has assailed Pena Nieto as a puppet of behind-the-scenes PRI masters, such as former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), whose privatization policies vastly enriched some tycoons.

“This is no time for the country to go in reverse,” Lopez Obrador said early Sunday after casting his ballot.

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 dipping. But the criminal landscape is unstable. Powerful criminal organizations, like Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, face an array of 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 rev 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 is not proving a drag on Mexico, which 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.