MEXICO CITY—The most contentious Mexican presidential election in a generation turned into a nail-biter late Sunday, with exit polls showing the race's two frontrunners locked in a virtual tie.
Mexican media outlets were cautious about the likely outcome of the race, and none was willing to name either leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, or conservative Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party, or PAN, as the likely winner.
With emotions running high, and reports of irregularities trickling in, most media outlets declined to reveal the actual results of their polls. Only TV Azteca reported precise numbers, showing Calderon with a 2-percentage-point lead—within the poll's margin of error. The newspapers Reforma and El Universal and the television network Televisa said only that the race was a tie.
The United States has a major stake in the outcome of the election. While Calderon has pledged to keep in place pro-U.S. policies of current President Vicente Fox, Lopez Obrador has vowed to delay portions of the North American Free Trade Agreement and to strike a more independent foreign policy, particularly on issues involving Cuba.
The two men also have proposed different ways of discouraging migration to the United States, with Lopez Obrador calling for greater subsidies to the poor and the expansion of public works programs.
The head of Mexico's Federal Election Institute, Luis Carlos Ugalde, went on national television Sunday night and urged candidates to avoid declaring victory until his panel had made it official. He called on Mexicans to avoid taking to the streets in celebration or in protest.
Ugalde said he wouldn't announce a winner before midnight EDT, and if the race was too close to call then a result wouldn't be announced before Monday at the earliest.
The only firm result of the exit polls was that for the first time in modern Mexican history, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had held onto the presidency for more than seven decades until 2000, won't be among the top two finishers.
The PRI's president, Mariano Palacios, late Sunday called on election authorities to avoid making any statement until they were sure of a winner.
The close race is likely to upset supporters of Lopez Obrador, who for two years has been leading the opinion polls. But Calderon ran a vicious campaign designed to scare middle class voters, warning them that a leftist president would lead Mexico into an alliance with unsavory leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Lopez Obrador said repeatedly he would not make radical changes to Mexico's longstanding macroeconomic policies, which have been followed by three successive presidents since 1992, but his focus on increased social spending and his skepticism of Washington-style free trade policies represent a real break from current policy.
Polls had predicted a close finish, prompting concerns of unrest if days lingered with no results or if the results were disputed. The PRD lost a close presidential election once before, in 1988, when the then-PRI-controlled election commission's computers suffered an hours-long failure, during which the PRD's candidate's lead was overtaken. The winner of that election was the PRI's Carlos Salinas de Gotari.
George Grayson, a Mexico political analyst and author of a book about Lopez Obrador called "Mexican Messiah," said Lopez Obrador has raised expectations so much among the poor that they may not be able to accept defeat.
"Even if he went on TV and said let's cool it, I don't think he could restrain his followers from pretty ugly demonstrations if he is announced as the loser," said Grayson, acting as an international observer. "And I'm an optimist."
As it stands, PRD officials late Sunday already had called for the party's supporters to head to Mexico City's giant central square, or Zocalo, which Lopez Obrador supporters have used to stage exuberant and sometimes angry protests in the past.
In other races, exit polls showed the PAN and PRD doing well in their core constituencies. The PAN maintained its hold on the governorships of Jalisco and Guanajuato states while the PRD candidate overwhelmingly won the key Mexico City mayor's race. A third PAN-controlled governorship, in Morelos, was too close to call.
Aside from the presidency, Mexicans were voting for 128 federal senate seats, 500 congressional posts, three state governors, the Mexico City mayor, 423 other mayoral posts and 293 state legislative positions in nine states.
Interviews in Mexico City testified to the closeness of the presidential voting, with both candidates receiving support from a cross-section of people leaving the polls. The PRI's Roberto Madrazo was rarely mentioned.
There were scattered reports of irregularities and tension which initially had seemed minor, but in the context of a close election recalled events that gave rise to complaints about both the 2000 and 2004 U.S. presidential elections.
Special polling stations for out-of-town voters ran out of ballots. In the poverty-stricken slum of Chimalhuacan, just outside Mexico City, many waited for hours at one of the special voting stations. Others were turned away when poll workers couldn't find their names in their database.
"They said I could vote here," said Domingo Ojeda Prieto, 79, a resident of Veracruz on Mexico's Gulf coast who was in Mexico City for a medical procedure. "But when I gave them my voter identification card, they said I couldn't."
Ironically, federal election authorities limited the number of away-from-home ballots in part because in elections past these special voting booths were rife with ballot stuffing. But migration within Mexico has risen, as it has into the United States, and many Mexicans unhappily found themselves unable to vote Sunday.
There were only 750 ballots allocated to each special voting station, and a little more than 600,000 altogether distributed throughout the country.
Turnout was relatively heavy and appeared likely to surpass the electoral institute's 60 percent prediction.
"We are very happy, it's a true civic party," President Fox said after casting his vote on his 64th birthday. Fox, a PAN member, made history six years ago to the day by defeating the PRI's presidential candidate to become the first non-PRI politician to hold the presidency in seven decades.
The high voter turnout reflected the election's high stakes. Mexicans were deciding between continuity and a turn to the left, between Fox's pro-United States, investment-oriented economic model that Calderon has promised to continue and Lopez Obrador's vow to place greater emphasis on an independent foreign policy and expanded social programs for the poor.
Those stands were clearly on the minds of Mexico City voters as they went to the polls.
Juan Silva Zamudio, a Mexico City scientist, said he voted for Calderon. "He has a global vision. He's a good negotiator. We need to be involved in the global economy," he explained.
Truck driver Ignacio Medina, 65, said he voted for Fox in 2000 but is now supporting Lopez Obrador. He admired what Lopez Obrador has done for the poor as mayor of Mexico City, and expressed the hope he'd do the same for rural areas.
"We need help in the countryside," said Medina, who abandoned farming a decade ago in a rural swath of territory east of Mexico City. "You can't make a living farming anymore, 10 years ago you could do it."
Foreign policy also influenced some voters. Oscar Diaz, an unemployed economist, said he voted for Lopez Obrador because he promised to return Mexico to an approach more independent of the United States. "Relations with the United States need to be more than a president that gives in, that represents the interests of the Yankees," he said.
That was the feeling as well for Ruperta Lopez Fonseca, an accountant, who said she hoped Lopez Obrador would strike a more distant relationship with President Bush than Fox had.
"He can be a friend, but your friend needs to be responsive. It can't be one sided," she said after casting her vote in Mexico City's middle class San Rafael district.
Outside the massive Wal-Mart Supercenter in Mexico City's working-class Buenavista neighborhood, which boasts 28 checkout lanes and a Blockbuster video store, middle-class voters appeared split.
Marco Polo Elizalde said he voted for Calderon because he believed the ad campaigns that warned that Lopez Obrador's big-spending ideas would trigger an economic downturn like those of decades past.
"Truthfully, it is a big worry for a lot of us, that there will be another economic crisis," Elizalde said.
But Humberto Urrutia, owner of a small business, dismissed concerns that Lopez Obrador would tinker with the economy. "He's not crazy," said Urrutia, confident a left-leaning government would respect the economic gains made by Mexico in recent years.
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Jant Schwartz contributed to this report from Oaxaca City, Oaxaca.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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