MEXICO CITY — Economist Ernesto Zedillo claimed victory Monday, apparently retaining the ruling party's six-decade hold on the Mexican presidency but without the absolute majority that his predecessors have enjoyed.
His triumph--with almost 48% of the vote in partial returns--was the narrowest ever recorded by a modern candidate of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
But with 35.59% of the precincts reporting, Zedillo still held a big margin over his major rivals: Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the National Action Party (PAN), who had 30% of the vote; and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), with 16%.
The PRI also captured a significant lead in Senate elections nationwide and in the two governorships at stake Sunday.
The ruling party's apparent win came as Mexico recorded a 70% voter turnout, the highest in this nation's history. A high turnout had been expected to favor opposition parties.
In retrospect, analysts said, the turbulence of the past year--which began with an Indian uprising in the south and other violence, including the assassination of Zedillo's predecessor, Luis Donaldo Colosio--persuaded voters not to risk a change.
Zedillo--at 42, one of the youngest and least experienced politicians to lead Mexico in this century--campaigned heavily on the issue of security. PRI bumper stickers, for example, proclaimed, "I vote for peace."
Several Mexican observer groups and international teams indicated that they had detected no widespread fraud in Sunday's voting, although all reported irregularities in spots across the country.
Still, the elections that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari had pledged would be the cleanest in Mexican history generated sporadic protests Monday, particularly by Cardenas supporters, who asserted that there had been massive cheating.
"This is a victory for the PRI of tomorrow," Zedillo said in a speech early Monday, when the first returns showed him with a comfortable lead. "For the PRI we are building with firm conviction and determination."
Zedillo's seeming victory was widely seen as a guarantee that the free-market economic reforms of the past decade will continue for the next six years of his administration.
On Monday, Zedillo promised to work for "economic growth, social advances, the abatement of poverty." He pledged that his government will spend more on social programs, admitting that the restructuring that has drawn billions of dollars in foreign investment to Mexico has yet to touch many of the country's poor.
As budget minister, Zedillo--who earned a doctorate in economics at Yale but had never held elected office--was an integral part of the economic team that sold off state-owned companies, slashed government subsidies and negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, solidifying this nation's commitment to open international markets.
On Monday, Mexican investors and the business community reacted strongly to his declaration of victory, sending stocks soaring 51 points and driving the peso to its strongest position against the dollar in three months.
Economists, brokers and investors were in broad agreement Monday that the orderly elections, whose results also seemed to please stock markets throughout Latin America, will hasten bricks-and-mortar investment in Mexico; there were indications that dollars have already been sprung loose.
Cardenas, who is widely believed to have been cheated of the presidency in 1988, cried fraud again Monday to a gathering of supporters in the capital's main square.
But the group of 20,000 who cheered him in the historic Zocalo was far smaller than the massive crowds that rallied behind Cardenas six years ago.
"An uncommon fraud has been committed," Cardenas said with his usual deadpan delivery, urging his supporters to attend another demonstration Saturday after the final, official returns have been announced. "We still do not know the results," he said. "I will leave the judgment of the outcome to the Mexican people, not to the Congress or the (Federal) Electoral Tribunal."
Meantime, a potentially explosive showdown was brewing in the southern state of Chiapas, where Cardenas' party refused to recognize the official results giving victory to the PRI gubernatorial candidate.
Instead, the opposition announced a campaign of civil disobedience and declared the governor-elect to be Amado Avendano, a newspaper editor who narrowly escaped death in a suspicious traffic accident during the campaign.
Chiapas was the site of a guerrilla uprising last January by Indians and peasants calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army.
The rebels had vowed to resume their struggle if the ruling party tried to win the elections fraudulently.
Members of the Democratic Convention--a grouping of about 30 Indian, peasant and social organizations--said that, based on their monitoring of Sunday's vote, Avendano had won.