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Millions of Mexicans Take Hopes to Polls : Election: Near-record numbers turn out for watershed balloting. Vote is peaceful. Exit surveys favor Zedillo.


MEXICO CITY — Early unofficial returns and preliminary exit-poll projections today gave Mexico's ruling party presidential candidate Ernesto Zedillo a wide lead in crucial national elections Sunday that were billed as a watershed of Mexican democracy.

Opposition candidates challenged the early results after a day in which tens of millions of Mexicans discarded their suspicions and fears in favor of hope and poured into polling stations in record numbers. One of Zedillo's leading opponents, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, called for a mass demonstration in the heart of Mexico City at noon today to "make an intransigent defense of the citizens' vote."

But Zedillo's other principal challenger, conservative candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, struck a more conciliatory tone in a speech televised just after midnight.

"Change has barely begun, but it has begun," he declared, stressing that he will wait to make any declaration on the result until after the newly elected Congress and an official election tribunal rule on the outcome of the polls. "Even though the system resists dying, it is virtually dead."

The figures that appeared to bolster the chances of the party that has governed Mexico for the past 65 years came in the form of untested quick counts and exit polls released well in advance of official election returns.

The quick counts that were made public after midnight under an agreement with the official election commission, which had yet to announce any official results, indicated that Zedillo and his governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) would win with about 50% of the vote over about 26% for Fernandez and 18% for Cardenas.

Those tallies were based on actual returns reported unofficially to various groups from a random selection of polling places throughout the country. They came on the heels of two exit polls that projected Zedillo would win by similar margins.

Third-place Cardenas denounced the polls and quick counts as "part of the montage to condition public opinion" at a news conference soon after they were released, and the candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party released his own exit poll that showed him winning with 38% of the vote, Zedillo with 32% and Fernandez with 22%.

This is the first election in which the government has permitted quick counts and exit polls, and several analysts said they were as unproven as the opinion polls that showed Zedillo far ahead 10 days before the election.

The national election commission had announced that its first official returns from the crucial poll for a new president and a 628-seat National Congress would be made public only after they tallied at least 15% of the vote, which was not expected until early this morning.

In fact, all three major parties, including the long-governing PRI, appeared to agree in the early morning hours on just one major result of Mexico's historic election day: Voter turnout appeared huge, with long lines snaking through suburban neighborhoods, slums, rural towns and jungle villages.

Fernandez's National Action Party unofficially placed the turnout nationwide at 75%, and ruling party sources confirmed that they believed the vote would be a record.

"We have been amazed by the enormous participation, which is unprecedented in Mexican history," said Salvador Ordaz Montes de Ochoa, director of the National Assn. of Election Observers, one of several umbrella groups that fielded tens of thousands of Mexican poll watchers.

Most analysts had speculated that a large turnout would probably favor the two leading opponents of Zedillo. But the 42-year-old Yale-educated Zedillo, meeting a handful of American journalists in his campaign office as the polls closed, said the turnout favored his governing party.

"It looks like it helped us a lot," he said.

The balloting was largely peaceful, although there were persistent reports throughout the day of potentially serious irregularities. In particular, there were severe shortages of ballots at special polling places set up for registered voters who were away from their home districts.

But many voters with credentials whose names did not appear on the official voters list, which the government touted as a $730-million investment in clean elections, also were sent to the special polling stations, some of which ran out of ballots before noon.

In other cases, citizens watchdog groups reported that polling places opened hours late, particularly in the state of Yucatan, a stronghold of the opposition National Action Party. In Michoacan, the stronghold of the other major opposition, the Revolutionary Democratic Party, observers saw several cases of "taco" voting, when a voter slips one ballot inside another, then stuffs both into the ballot box.

It was unclear whether the irregularities would affect the final tally, and none of the nine political parties nor the many election observers reported systematic or massive fraud before the counting began Sunday night.

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