MEXICO CITY?? The party that ruled Mexico for most of the past century looked set for a comeback on Sunday as voters chose a new president, seeking an end to a brutal drug war and weak economic growth that have worn down the ruling conservatives.
Twelve years after the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost power, its candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, led by between 8 and 11 percentage points in exit polls released by three of Mexico's main television networks after voting ended on Sunday night.
Tainted by corruption, electoral fraud and occasional bouts of brutal authoritarianism during its 71 years in power, the PRI was voted out in 2000. It has bounced back, helped by the economic malaise and a tide of lawlessness that have plagued Mexico under the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.
Pena Nieto, a youthful-looking former governor of the State of Mexico, has established himself as the new face of the PRI with the aid of favorable media coverage led by Mexico's most powerful broadcaster, Televisa.
Leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was in second place with Josefina Vazquez Mota of PAN, trailing in third.
Vazquez Mota said she recognized that voting trends in Sunday's election did not favor her, but stopped short of conceding defeat.
Preliminary official results were due in the next few hours.
Long lines of voters snaked around city blocks in the capital. The first national exit polls were expected when voting ends in the westernmost part of the country at 8 p.m.
"It's time for the PRI to return. They're the only ones who know how to govern," said Candelaria Puc, 70, preparing to vote in Cancun with the help of a friend because she cannot read or write.
"The PRI is tough, but they won't let the drug violence get out of control," she added, speaking in a mix of Mayan and Spanish.
After ending the PRI's rule in 2000, the PAN raised hopes high. But years of weak growth and the death of more than 55,000 people in drug-related killings since 2007 have eroded its popularity.
Violence continued in the days before Sunday's vote.
In the Pacific beach resort of Acapulco, one of the cities most affected by the drug war, four people were killed on Saturday, two of them tortured and beheaded, a hallmark of drug-related killings, Guerrero state police said.
The PRI mayoral candidate in the city of Marquelia, about 40 miles from Acapulco, was kidnapped by an armed group, prompting a protest of his supporters that closed a highway for five hours, a party leader said.
Pena Nieto's closest challenger in pre-election polling was former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the front-runner for much of the 2006 race. Lopez Obrador ultimately lost by half a point to President Felipe Calderon of PAN and refused to accept defeat.
Claiming fraud, he led massive protests in the capital for weeks, bringing much of Mexico City to a standstill and alienating even some of his supporters.
Though his campaign bid surged late on when a wave student-led opposition to the PRI boosted his ratings, polls suggest Lopez Obrador will fall short of the 35 percent of votes he won in 2006.
"This is no time for the country to go in reverse," a relaxed Lopez Obrador said of the PRI before voting.
Final polls showed Pena Nieto winning 40 percent to 45 percent of the vote, Lopez Obrador close to 30 percent with Vazquez Mota not far behind. Gabriel Quadri, a fourth candidate competing for a smaller party, is expected to pick up a few percent. The one with the most votes wins, with no need for a second round.
Pena Nieto has seized on Calderon's failure to tame cartels with a military-led offensive, arguing the PRI's experience in power means it best understands how to restore peace to Mexico and reinvigorate the economy.
FEAR OF FRAUD
Lopez Obrador has in recent weeks sounded alarms about possible vote fraud, raising concerns he might call new street protests if he loses again.
His belligerence after 2006 exposed tensions within the main leftist grouping, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), although it has rallied behind him again for this campaign.
Though it has effective and popular control in Mexico City, the PRD's record outside the capital has been tainted by allegations of corruption and incompetence.
"It is important to stop the PRI coming back to power," said 22-year-old Rafael Peralta, a first-time voter. "They brutally repress protests and give handouts with conditions."
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The PRI laid the foundations of the modern state with a nimble blend of politics and patronage that allowed it to appeal to labor unions and captains of industry at the same time.
The party that nationalized the oil industry in 1938 also made sweeping free-market reforms in the 1990s and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada, upholding a populist image while a small cadre of well-connected capitalists grew rich through effective oligopolies.
Mexicans eventually tired of the one-party rule that stifled dissent, rewarded loyalists and allowed widespread corruption.
The era of old-time PRI bosses known as "dinosaurs" gave way to a more democratic era under the 1994-2000 presidency of Ernesto Zedillo, who instituted reforms that allowed opposition parties to compete in a fair vote and oust the PRI.
On Sunday voters will also decide on six state governors and both houses of Congress, with gains expected for the PRI.
The legislative results will help determine whether Pena Nieto will be able to push through his plans to liberalize antiquated labor laws, improve the tax take and open up state oil giant Pemex to more private investment.
Financial investors are encouraged by Pena Nieto's reform agenda, which would be more friendly toward foreigners, and hold out hope he would promote well-educated technocrats like those who oversaw the economy during the PRI's later years in power.
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