MEXICO CITY — The political party that ruled Mexico for decades with an autocratic grip appears to have vaulted back into power after 12 years in opposition, as voters troubled by a bloody drug war and economic malaise gave its presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, a comfortable victory on Sunday, according to exit polls of voters.
If the victory is confirmed by official results to be announced this morning, it would be a stunning reversal of fortune for the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which was thought to be crippled after its defeat in the 2000 presidential election ushered in an era of real multiparty democracy in Mexico.
Buoyed by a strong machine across several states and cities, by the youthful Peña Nieto's capture of the television spotlight and by voters' unhappiness with the direction of the country, the PRI defeated both the incumbent conservative party and the candidate who nearly beat the conservatives last time.
The surveys indicated that Peña Nieto was leading over Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, a former Mexico City mayor who lost narrowly in 2006. The conservative candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, a former Cabinet secretary who sought to become Mexico's first female president, was running third and conceded.
Peña Nieto, who has visited Washington and New York several times in the past year to introduce himself to lawmakers and opinion leaders, has promised more efficient, expanded trade with the United States and predicted that relations will be strong. But Washington will be watching closely for any hint of his administration easing the pressure on drug traffickers.
In his campaign, he promised to refocus the drug war more on combating the violence afflicting Mexicans, and has hardly mentioned attacking drug trafficking itself or taking down cartel leaders. That shift in rhetoric may have been meant to distance him from President Felipe Calderón, whose militarized approach to the drug war left many Mexicans uneasy over the heavy civilian toll — more than 50,000 drug war-related deaths in recent years — and anxious for a better strategy.
No single issue dominated the campaign — not the drug war or the economy, which is growing but leaving the poor behind and lagging in raising wages.
Instead, polls indicated that voters felt a general malaise and fatigue after 12 years of rule by the conservative National Action Party, and disenchantment with Calderón, whose six-year term ends in December. Mexican presidents are limited by law to a single term in office.
Peña Nieto, 45, a former governor of Mexico state, which nearly surrounds Mexico City and is the nation's most populous, rose rapidly from obscurity through his party's ranks in the state, where relatives of his had played prominent roles. He campaigned without an ideological bent, as he had when running for governor, and presented himself as a pragmatic manager, publicly signing pledges to get things done.
He made the economy his centerpiece, saying he would create jobs and lift wages. He said he planned to shore up Pemex, the country's national oil company and a vital source of public revenue, by opening the company to more foreign investment.
Peña Nieto opened up a lead in the polls that he maintained even as his opponents attacked his party, suggesting that it would try to bring peace in the streets by making deals with the drug networks and would rule by corruption and patronage, as it had in the past.
Nearly 80 million Mexicans were eligible to vote, with turnout traditionally running about 60 percent. Federal election authorities said the voting went smoothly despite some bumps.