"The PAN did not know how to govern," said Ricardo Avila, 45, a cashier at a convenience store, referring to Calderon's party. "They had their chance and wasted it. Time for the PRI."
Disappointment with the lack of democratic reforms during the last 12 years of PAN government, plus the violence, has fed opposition to the ruling party. Voters turned in droves to the PRI. The PRI also spent years carefully building up its support at the local level and does not hesitate to pay voters to vote.
"The PRI knows how to deal with the narco," said Roberto Salcido, owner of a chain of tortilla shops in Atlacomulco. "When they were in power, the country did not suffer because the deal was, 'You move your drugs but you don't mess with me.' It worked. The country was calm."
"If [making deals with drug traffickers] is what ends the violence and the extortion, then, yes," Salcido added. "The PRI knows how to make the drug traffickers respect them."
Peña Nieto, who has pledged to continue fighting drug cartels, arrived to vote accompanied by his new wife, a soap opera star, and children from a previous marriage. A small group of people who said they were university students appeared to protest his probable victory — which they called a "manipulated vote," in reference to Peña Nieto's cozy relationship with Mexico's main television broadcasters.
Four members of the Gonzalez Romo family arrived the minute polls opened, hoping to catch a glimpse of the candidate.
"He seems honest and is very handsome," Maria Romo said.
Her husband, Armando Gonzalez, bristled at questions about allegations of corruption that dog the PRI.
"Maybe you can accuse him of being a Don Juan, for his conquest of women — we men are like that," Gonzalez, 61, said. "But not corrupt."
Neither Peña Nieto nor the other candidates proposed major changes in the drug war and all insisted on continued use of the military and close cooperation with the United States, which has invested millions of dollars in the battle. Peña Nieto said before the vote that if elected he would appoint Colombian super-cop Gen. Oscar Naranjo, a favorite of Washington, as his special advisor in the fight against organized crime.
Peña Nieto has also pledged to open Pemex up to desperately needed foreign investment, a move that is barred by the Mexican Constitution and which his party steadfastly opposed until recently.
Mexicans on Sunday were also electing governors in six states, and the PAN stood to lose there, as well. The PRI dominance extended to the western state of Jalisco, which had been governed by the PAN since 1995; exit polls showed the PAN candidate in third place.
In the sprawling capital, Mexico City, the left retained the mayorship in a landslide. The Democratic Revolution Party's Miguel Angel Mancera, former attorney general for the city, was elected to replace popular Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, besting his nearest rival by nearly 40 percentage points.
News assistants Cecilia Sanchez and Daniel Hernandez in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.