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.
University students launched a series of anti-Pena Nieto marches in the final weeks of the campaign, arguing that his party hasn't changed since its days in power
Pena Nieto says his party has abandoned the heavy-handed ways of the past and will govern in an open and pluralistic manner, and many say the PRI would not be able to reimpose its once near-total control even if it wanted to because of changes in society, the judiciary and Congress.
"The context has changed dramatically," said Rodrigo Salazar, a professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico City. "Society isn't the same. It's a very critical society, a very demanding society, with a strong division of powers."
The final pre-election polls on Wednesday, the last day they could legally be published, showed Pena Nieto with a lead ranging from 8 to 17 percentage points.
Mario Garcia, a 21-year-old criminal justice student, lined up to vote in the city of Atlacomulco at the same polling station where Pena Nieto was casting his ballot. "Ask anyone here and they will tell you they are going to vote for Pena Nieto. We are all of the PRI," Garcia said.
Several voters complained that the polling station opened 51 minutes late, and said election officials there were disorganized.
"They are still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes," said Maria Guadalupe Monroy. "Just imagine if Pena Nieto had voted at 8 in the morning (when the polls were scheduled to open). What would they have done?"
Lopez Obrador, 58, was a center-leftist as Mexico City mayor and pioneered some programs that Pena Nieto emulated in the neighboring State of Mexico, such as local pensions for the elderly. But he alienated many voters with his refusal to recognize the narrow victory of National Action's Felipe Calderon in 2006, declaring himself "legitimate president" and mounting protests that gridlocked much of the capital for weeks.
He remained confident Sunday. "We are going to win the election," Lopez Obrador said before voting in southern Mexico City. "Tonight, there will be a national civic celebration."
"Mexico is no longer for moving backward," he said. "People want a real change."
Lopez Obrador says he wants to keep state control over the national oil company, make Mexico self-sufficient in energy and food production, and fund new social spending and jobs programs by cutting waste and corruption, not by raising taxes.
Vazquez Mota, 51, is a former secretary of education and social development in the conservative administrations of President Vicente Fox and his successor, Calderon. She campaigned on the slogan, "different," but has struggled to distinguish herself from Calderon while maintaining the support of the party's power structure.
She has pledged to continue Calderon's war on drug cartels, increase penalties for public corruption and ease rules on hiring and firing employees in order to spur economic growth. On the last day of campaigning, she even promised to make Calderon her attorney-general if elected.
"Now it's the citizens' decision," Vazquez Mota said as she walked into a Mexico City polling station to cast her vote, accompanied by her husband and their three daughters. She hugged and kissed several children gathered at the polling station before being whisked away in an SUV.
Angel Guzman, a 49-year-old businessman, said he was voting for Vazquez Mota because he thought the PAN could better manage the economy. "I'm afraid that business will be derailed, that there will be an economic crisis, devaluations" if the PRI wins," Guzman said at the same polling place where his candidate voted.
The latest polls showed Pena Nieto favored by 32.2 percent to 41.2 percent of voters, in polls with margins of error ranging from 2.5 to 3 percent.
Lopez Obrador had support ranging from 23.8 to 25.4 percent. Josefina Vazquez Mota had 18.8 to 20.8 percent.
Also running is Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, 57, the candidate of the New Alliance Party, which has links to the powerful teacher's union. His poll support remains in the low single digits.
Mexicans are also electing 500 members of the lower house of Congress and 128 senators.
Voters will also select Mexico City's mayor and governors in the states of Chiapas, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, Tabasco and Yucatan. The president is elected for a single six-year term and cannot stand for re-election.
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson, Adriana Gomez Licon, and Carlos Rodriguez contributed to this report from Mexico City, and Gloria Perez from Atlacomulco, Mexico.