Dario Lopez-Mills, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — Mexico's voters appeared poised to bring the old guard back to power on Sunday, a dozen years after the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the presidential seat it held for more than seven decades in a contest that proved the country was finally a democracy.
The party known as the PRI, led by telegenic former Mexico State Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, has held a strong lead throughout the campaign, and also appears likely to retake at least a plurality in the two houses of Congress.
The party has been bolstered by voter fatigue with a sluggish economy and the sharp escalation of a drug war that has killed roughly 50,000 Mexicans over the past six years. The desire for change suddenly works to benefit the PRI, which ran Mexico from 1929 to 2000.
Hoping for an upset are leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose narrow loss in Mexico's last election led to charges of voter fraud and weeks of massive protests, and the candidate of the ruling National Action Party, Josefina Vazquez Mota, the first woman ever nominated for the presidency by a major party in Mexico.
It would be a once-unthinkable comeback for the PRI, which many believed was doomed after its 2000 loss and which was still reeling in the last presidential election, when it finished a weak third.
Pena Nieto has cast himself as a pragmatic economic moderate in the tradition of the last three PRI presidents. He has called for greater private investment in Mexico's state-controlled oil industry, and has said he will try to reduce violence by attacking crimes that hurt ordinary citizens while deemphasizing the pursuit of drug kingpins.
All of the parties are accusing rivals of emulating the traditional PRI tactic of offering voters money, food or benefits in return for votes. Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party says Pena Nieto's campaign has handed supporters prepaid money cards worth nearly $5.2 million (71 million pesos).
"Where do they get so many resources to conduct the PRI campaign, so many billboards?" asked voter Marilu Carrasco, a 57-year-old actress who was lined up to cast her vote for Lopez Obrador in southern Mexico City's Copilco neighborhood. The PRI's return to the presidency "could be the worst thing that could happen to us," Carrasco said.
PRI activists, meanwhile, have published photographs of truckloads of handouts they say were given out by Democratic Revolution backers.
By midday Sunday, an electoral observer mission from the Organization of American States reported that it not detected any signs of violence or fraud.
"It's a copious, massive vote," said Cesar Gavira, head of the observer mission. "All over the city you see citizens waiting to vote. We are confident that at the end of the day the Mexican electoral system will produce a result that will generate certainty concerning the will of the Mexican people."
At some of the special polling stations set up in Mexico City for voters to cast ballots away from their hometowns, people complained that the limited number of ballots allotted had run out just a few hours after the station opened. "It's absurd that you stand in line for hours and when you get to the front there are no ballots," said 22-year-old medical student Perla Hernandez.
But electoral officials have repeatedly insisted that outright fraud is almost impossible under the country's elaborate, costly electoral machinery.
The government also promises efforts to avoid outbursts of violence linked to the country's endemic drug gang violence. The army stepped up election day patrols in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, where a bomb in a pickup truck exploded outside city hall on Friday.
The 45-year-old Pena Nieto, who is married to a soap opera star, also has been dogged by allegations that he overspent his $330 million campaign funding limit and has received favorable coverage from Mexico's television giant, Televisa.
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