Mexico’s old rulers claimed victory in a presidential election on Sunday, ending 12 years in opposition after a campaign dominated by a sputtering economy and rampant drug violence.
After pledging to restore order and ramp up economic growth, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had a clear lead over his rivals in exit polls and a “quick count” conducted by electoral authorities.
Although his main rival said it was too early to concede defeat, the 45-year-old Pena Nieto delivered a late-night victory speech to cheering supporters, and a senior electoral official said the PRI candidate’s lead was “irreversible.”
“Mexicans have given our party another chance. We are going to honor it with results,” a visibly moved Pena Nieto told followers packed inside the PRI headquarters in Mexico City.
Jubilant supporters waved banners sporting caricatures of their candidate and his trademark forelock, and confetti in the red, green and white of the Mexican flag — and the PRI’s colors — rained down inside the hall.
Outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon congratulated Pena Nieto on his triumph, which completed a dramatic comeback for the PRI.
With returns in from more two-thirds of polling booths, Pena Nieto had 37 percent of the vote, more than 4 percentage points clear of leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. His lead was slowly widening as the night drew on.
Initial projections by Milenio TV suggested the PRI had not won enough votes for an absolute majority in either the Mexican Senate or the lower house of the Mexican Congress.
Pena Nieto’s advantage was much less convincing than the PRI had hoped for, with most polls in the immediate run-up to the election showing he would win by between 10 and 15 percentage points.
Having run Mexico as a virtual one-party state for most of the 20th century, it was ousted in an election 12 years ago and was seen by many as being on its death bed when it finished in third place in the 2006 presidential vote.
Renowned as much for his unfailingly well-groomed appearance as his political skills, the handsome Pena Nieto gave a fresh face to the PRI, helping to instill a new sense of discipline and make the party electable again.
He hopes to use economic reform as a springboard to ignite growth, create jobs and draw the heat out of a drug war that has killed more than 55,000 people since late 2006.
He has pledged to boost economic growth to about 6 percent a year and make bold economic changes, including reforms to allow more private investment in Mexico’s state-run oil industry.
The electoral authorities’ quick count, an early representative sample from around the country, showed Pena Nieto with about 38 percent of the vote and Lopez Obrador in second with less than 32 percent.
Lopez Obrador could choose to challenge the election, as he did six years ago when he narrowly lost to Calderon and launched months of protests against alleged fraud.
Inspiring high hopes when it was elected in 2000, the party has failed to ignite stronger economic growth and Calderon has had no answer to the rampant violence of Mexico’s drug war.
“Nothing has improved since the PAN got in,” Mexico City plumber Raimundo Salazar, 44, said. “The PRI understands how things work here, and it knows how to manage the drug gangs.”