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Mexico City - Presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto leads Mexico's elections with about 40 percent of the vote in early exit polls Sunday, signaling a return of his long-ruling party to power after a 12-year hiatus.
Exits polls released by Milenio and TV Azteca networks say Pena Nieto garnered between 39 percent and 42 percent of the vote to his leftist and conservative rivals. Former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has about 30 percent of the vote to Josefina Vazquez Mota's 23 percent for the current governing National Action Party.
The exit polls were released shortly after voting ended nationwide at 8 p.m.
The PRI held a strong lead throughout the campaign. The party, voted out of the presidency in 2000 after 71 years in power, also appeared likely to retake at least a plurality in the two houses of Congress and some governorship.
"Enrique Pena Nieto appears to be accomplishing what many thought would never happen again: the return of a strong and dynamic PRI," said Eric Olson of the Washington-based Mexico Institute. "The question: How will they govern?" 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, and many see their victory as inevitable.
At the PRI headquarters in Mexico City, a party atmosphere was building as sound technicians, waiters and an army of reporters waited in a large white tent in the party complex patio.
"If I vote for someone else, it's still a vote for Pena Nieto. We know he's going to win," said María Teresa Alva Cornejo, 60, a housewife in Mexico City. "I hope he does things well."
There were very few reports of problems, though some polling stations ran out of ballots and at least nine people were arrested in the southern state of Chiapas for trying to pass ballots pre-marked the PRI.
Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire said that across the country federal security forces were working closely with local and state authorities, as well as electoral officials, to guard the peace during the vote.
Sergio Ortega, a 31 year old businessman from the city of Guadalajara, said he would vote against Pena Nieto to try to prevent return of the PRI.
"He had too much favoritism. They played many tricks," Ortega said.
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 de-emphasizing the pursuit of drug kingpins.
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 re-impose 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."
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.
"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.
But electoral officials have repeatedly insisted that outright fraud is almost impossible under the country's elaborate, costly electoral machinery.
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.