MEXICO CITY — After 12 years of rule under the conservative National Action Party, Mexicans on Sunday appeared to have elected a candidate from the Institutional Revolutionary Party to lead Texas’ largest trade partner and southern neighbor.
Enrique Peña Nieto, 45, the former governor of the state of Mexico, was projected to best challengers Josefina Vázquez Mota of the National Action Party and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist progressive alliance, made up of the Party of the Democratic Revolution and the Labor Party. Peña Nieto, who would succeed President Felipe Calderón, would be sworn in in December and serve a single six-year term; Mexican law prohibits presidents from serving more than one term.
Results of the conteo rápido — the country’s first estimate of the election results — showed that Peña Nieto had received roughly 38 percent of the ballots cast, compared with López Obrador’s estimated 31 percent. Vázquez Mota received between 25 and 26 percent, according to the country’s elections institute.
Flanked by his wife, Mexican soap opera star Angelica Rivera, and their children, Peña Nieto greeted a jubilant crowd of PRI supporters at the party’s headquarters shortly after the early results were announced. In a 15-minute speech, he thanked Calderón, his supporters, and his opponents, and promised to do his best to unite the country.
“With this election we all won, Mexico won,” he said. “To those who voted for other [candidates], I assure you I will govern with everybody and for everybody.”
Turnout was about 62 percent, or 49 million votes, which officials said was the highest in the country’s history. But López Obrador, who lost to Calderón by a razor thin margin in 2006, refused to concede and said instead he would wait to see the results of Wednesday's official count. But some analysts said the 7-point margin was too much to overcome, and even Calderón congratulated Peña Nieto shortly after the initial count.
About 143,000 polling stations opened across Mexico and 28,000 foreign observers descended on the country, according to figures released by Leonardo Valdés Zurita, the director of the country’s federal elections institute.
The regime change is expected to be one of the world's most monitored, as Mexican citizens and international observers watch to see how Peña Nieto attempts to restore peace to a country that has been plagued by drug violence for nearly six years. More than 55,000 Mexicans have died since 2006, when Calderón resumed the government crackdown against organized crime that his predecessor Vicente Fox began near the end of his presidency. Mexico’s economy and robust trade relationship with Texas, which has made the cities of Laredo and El Paso Mexico’s No. 1 and No. 2 trade destinations, respectively, will also likely be scrutinized after December.
Some lawmakers in Texas, including U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who sits on the House's Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, have expressed doubts that Peña Nieto will be as aggressive in his efforts to rid the country of criminals as Calderón has been.
Shortly after the early results, McCaul released a statement congratulating the former governor, but reiterated his concerns.
“I look forward to meeting and working with him on the challenges our countries share,” McCaul said. “While he has stated publicly he is committed to the security of his country against the drug cartels, I am hopeful that he will not return to the PRI party of the past which was corrupt and had a history of turning a blind eye to the drug cartels.”
Others were more optimistic in their assessments. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, joined Peña Nieto on Sunday evening and said he was encouraged after meeting with the candidate several times that the transition would be positive for the U.S.
“Mexico is a crucial security and trade partner that exchanges $1 billion in commerce each day with our country and supports 6 million American jobs,” he said in a statement. “I am confident that President-elect Peña Nieto will be a valuable ally with the United States on key issues like trade and border security, and I look forward to a continued strong relationship between our two countries.”
Though much of the country's violence has been between the warring drug cartels, many Mexicans are disillusioned with the government's effort and are skeptical of how involved the military and local, state and federal police forces are in the drug trade.
As recently as Saturday, military convoys were dispatched to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, to provide safety for Mexicans seeking to cast a ballot after a car bomb exploded outside the city’s municipal offices on Friday. The city is currently in the grips of a bloody war between the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartels.
But others are far more hopeful. Peggy Jaramillo, a Dallas resident and dual citizen who cast a ballot in Sunday’s election by mail, said she likes what she sees in the new Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Jaramillo, who was in Mexico City as one of the country’s elections observers, is the president of Tu Casa San Luis en Texas, an immigrant advocacy center. A Republican, she said no that matter who is in power in Mexico, Texas will remain the border state with the most welcoming immigration policy — from in-state tuition for illegal immigrants to the fact that undocumented residents can buy auto insurance and cars.
Lawmakers’ policies are “we want you but we don’t want you,” she said. “Yes, we are a state with a Republican majority, but [lawmakers] want and know that they need our immigrants, and not just from Mexico. [Texas Gov.] Rick Perry is in office. Rick Perry wants us here.”
Sunday’s election marked only the second time in the country’s history that Mexicans like Jaramillo who live abroad could mail in ballots. The IFE, the country’s elections institute, hoped international voting in this contest would be an improvement over 2006, when 53,000 people applied for placement on Mexico's foreign voters list and 41,000 were approved. That resulted in 33,100 mail-in ballots.
Although the PRI’s campaign was based in part on ushering in a new image for the former ruling party, allegations of vote buying surfaced before the first ballot was cast, reminding Mexicans of the party's iron-fisted past. The Associated Press reported on Sunday that there were accusations that the PRI was persuading Mexicans to support their candidate through gifts and bribes. According to the AP, the PAN accused Peña Nieto’s campaign of acquiring 9,500 prepaid gift cards worth almost $5.2 million to give away in exchange for supporting the PRI at the ballot box.
Doubts that a new PRI means anything significant for Mexico have been brewing, particularly among the country's youth and a movement called YoSoy132 (I Am the 132). Though the group, which largely supports Lopéz Obrador, was founded by college students, it has now grown to include anyone who opposes the PRI, and Peña Nieto specifically. On Saturday, thousands in the movement descended upon Mexico City’s Plaza de Las Tres Culturas, the site of the country’s massacre in 1968 when student protesters were gunned down by military and police.
Victor Leon, 33, vowed to put the pressure on the PRI despite early reports that Peña Nieto would ascend to Los Pinos, the country’s presidential palace.
“We are committed to staying unified and moving forward with a pacifist movement,” he said.
Others were far more disillusioned. “In my opinion, whatever party wins, it means the same thing,” said a Mexico City resident who asked only to be identified as Leonardo, 23. “We all know the mafia controls the country. The politicians all fight for the same slice of the pie and we are only left with the crumbs.”