Enrique Peña Nieto, the telegenic candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was leading polls by a sizable margin going into Sunday’s vote. His victory would restore the often-authoritarian party that ruled virtually unchallenged for seven decades until being defeated in 2000.
His nearest opponent in the polls was Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City who lost by the slightest of margins in the 2006 presidential election. He leads a coalition of leftist parties. Josefina Vazquez Mota, candidate for the incumbent National Action Party, in office since ousting the PRI in 2000, was trailing a distant third. President Felipe Calderon is barred by law from running for a second term.
Voting was mostly peaceful on Sunday, with numerous complaints of slow-to-open polling stations, long lines and shortages of ballots. The army announced on the eve of the vote that it was redoubling forces in the border city of Nuevo Laredo after suspected drug traffickers detonated a car bomb outside City Hall on Friday.
Tens of thousands of troops are deployed in parts of Mexico to fight powerful drug cartels who supply the United States with much of its cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine. That fight, launched by Calderon soon after he took office, has claimed more than 50,000 lives in nearly six years.
Mexicans dismayed with the violence — which has also touched off waves of kidnapping and extortion — and dissatisfied with sluggish economic growth seem willing to return to a party that claims to have reformed but that once represented an undemocratic system of coercion and repression.
“Peña Nieto is the best candidate and will be our next president,” declared Mario Rojas, a 53-year-old merchant in Atlacomulco, a city in the state of Mexico west of Mexico City that is a bastion of PRI sympathy. “With him we will have less poverty and more security.”
Peña Nieto was governor of the state of Mexico until last year, and he cast his ballot in Atlacomulco. A tiny group of protesters waved banners criticizing him until being run off.
“Peña Nieto knows how to solve problems,” said another supporter, Lucia Martinez, 65, after voting.
The PRI has a well-oiled party machinery that gets out the vote, sometimes in the past with payments and other perks.
A big question weighing on Sunday’s vote is whether Lopez Obrador, if he loses, will accept the results. In 2006, he refused to recognize Calderon’s victory and unleashed a series of paralyzing street protests. If the margin of Peña Nieto’s victory is not large, similar chaos may be in store.
Neither Peña Nieto nor the other candidates have proposed major changes in the war on drug cartels, and all insist on continued use of the military and close cooperation with Washington, which has invested millions of dollars in the fight.