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Mexico's Ruling Party Loses Presidency in Historic Election

Politics: The PRI concedes its 71-year lock on office is over as early results show Vicente Fox of the center-right winning handily. 'It's like the collapse of the Berlin Wall,' one observer says.


MEXICO CITY — Voters in Mexico ousted the world's longest-ruling faction, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, on Sunday, handing the presidency to maverick businessman Vicente Fox in a stunning upset, according to preliminary results.

"The next president of the republic will be Mr. Vicente Fox Quesada," declared President Ernesto Zedillo in a nationally televised address late Sunday. "Today we have proved that our democracy is mature."

It was the first time in 71 years that a Mexican president had announced he was turning over the powerful office to another party.

Fox of the National Action Party, or PAN, was the clear winner in a series of quick counts carried out by the nation's election agency at representative polling stations. He also was leading by 6 to 9 percentage points in three exit polls carried out by Mexican television networks and an exit poll conducted separately by The Times and the Mexico City daily Reforma.

The ruling party's loss spelled the end of a political regime that influenced nearly all aspects of Mexican life in the 20th century. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, created a system based on virtual one-party rule that modernized Mexico and brought it remarkable political stability. But the party had come under increasing attack in recent years for economic mismanagement and corruption.

"It's like the collapse of the Berlin Wall, or the collapse of the Communist system," Mexican writer and environmentalist Homero Aridjis said.

Roderic Camp, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, proclaimed it a "revolutionary change."

"This is Mexico moving the process of democratization for the first time at the national level beyond the electoral process," he said.

In other words: Mexico doesn't just have clean elections now. It is going to change the party at the pinnacle of power. That puts the vote on a par with the U.S. election of 1800, the first time political power changed hands democratically in the United States.

"We are inaugurating a new political regime at this moment," said Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent historian, speaking on Mexican television.

Spontaneous celebrations erupted outside the PAN headquarters here, where supporters held up giant foam symbols of Fox's anti-PRI campaign and cried: Ya! (Enough already!) Thousands more gathered around a major Mexico City monument, the Angel of Independence, whooping, blowing horns and madly waving flags.

"This is a moment that Mexico has waited for--60 years of fighting so that our vote would be respected. Finally, we have won," declared a weeping PAN senator, Maria Elena Alvarez, at the party headquarters.

PRI's Labastida Concedes Defeat

PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida, who had held a slender margin in preelection polls, conceded defeat late Sunday.

"The citizens took a decision that we must respect. I will set an example," the longtime bureaucrat said. "Our party is alive, it will stay alive and will know how to recover, with the unity of all the PRI members."

Zedillo praised the PRI for its historic contributions to Mexico, and for passing reforms allowing the nation's cleanest presidential election in history. Many of those reforms were spearheaded by Zedillo himself, who abandoned the tradition by which outgoing presidents effectively selected their successors.

Zedillo announced he will meet shortly with the president-elect to help coordinate the country's first democratic, peaceful turnover of power. He said he had telephoned Fox to assure him of the "absolute willingness of the government I lead to work together in all important aspects to ensure a good start for the next administration."

There were no clear results Sunday night on the outcome of congressional elections. All seats in the federal Senate and Chamber of Deputies were being contested. The PRI lost control of the lower house for the first time in 1997 and always has had a majority in the Senate.

PAN Unseats PRI for Governor Post

In the other major race Sunday, exit polls indicated the Mexico City mayor's post would go to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. The PAN won two state governorships up for grabs, succeeding the PRI in Morelos and cinching a third straight term in Guanajuato, where Fox grew up.

Fox moved quickly Sunday night to assure members of other parties--especially the PRI, which still controls two-thirds of Mexico's governorships--that he wants to cooperate and not seek vengeance. He pledged to include members of other parties in his government.

"This is the starting point for building a great nation," he declared in a television interview, looking composed, as usual.

"Today we celebrate. It's a historic day. A day of happiness. But tomorrow the work begins," he declared.

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