Votes have been cast Sunday in the election for the new president of Mexico, and exit polls are projecting victory for Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, with 40 percent of the vote, according to the Associated Press.
The exit polls released by Milenio and TV Azteca networks showed Peña Nieto's closest rival, "leftist" Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), with roughly 30 percent of the vote and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party (PAN), with just a little more than 23 percent of the vote. She conceded almost immediately.
Even before exit polls projected a winner, different narratives competed to explain what the elections mean for Mexico: a regression, a revolution, a referendum on the current president -- or merely resignation on the part of voters.
A victory for Peña Nieto would mark a return to power for the PRI, which, before being ousted in 2000, ruled Mexico for 70 years. To some, a Peña Nieto presidency feels like a fait accompli and would mean a regression, the restoration of what has been referred to as "the perfect dictatorship."
This perspective on the elections and Peña Nieto's candidacy is the catalyst for the student-led protest movement known as "YoSoy132." While against Peña Nieto, members of YoSoy132 say that no candidate speaks for them -- though Obrador is believed to have benefited from a ratings boost as a result of his identification with the movement. To some, YoSoy132 has the stirrings of revolution -- a "Mexican Spring."
Other analysts argue that the seeming certainty of Peña Nieto's presidency serves as a referendum on the record of current President Felipe Calderón, of the National Action Party (PAN). And the expected dynamic of Vazquez Mota standing out as Mexico's first female presidential candidate for a major party has been deflated by the weight of more than 50,000 deaths since Calderón initiated his war against the drug cartels in 2006.
Though turnout among Mexico's more than 79 million voters is expected to be about 65 percent, many express the belief that the races for the six-year presidency and a large number of other seats will be decided without their votes. Fear of voter fraud and illegitimacy remains. Either exhaustion from experience -- from nearly a century of single-party rule or from the everyday violence of the drug war -- resigns many Mexicans to the belief that all politicians are the same.
Yet Mexico's complexity prevents the current election saga from adhering to one simple narrative; the reality is far more nuanced.
"This is Mexico," Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister who is now a New York University professor, told The Huffington Post from a treadmill in Mexico City on Sunday morning. "Everything is here is sort of true, sort of fake. Nothing is ever completely authentic in Mexico, ever … That's the way it is."
MOOD IN MEXICO
"Unfortunately, the differences between regions of the country and the drug war are key to these divisions in Mexican society," Horacio Nàjera said. "Many are tired of the narco war, and others are tired of social and economic inequalities."
Horacio Nàjera, who worked as a janitor when he first moved to Canada because he couldn't find another media job, is not voting in the elections. He can't vote absentee because of his immigration status in Canada, he said.
"Calderón made a mistake at the beginning of his administration and that was to start a war with an enemy who he does not know," Horacio Nàjera said.
Although the perceived level of violence has abated somewhat, Horacio Nàjera pointed to recent shootings in Mexico City's airport and a car bomb explosion in Nuevo Laredo that could be seen across the nearby border in United States as a sign that security will continue be a concern. Violence in the past has led to lower voter turnout in key elections in Mexico.
Horacio Nàjera said he believes that if Peña Nieto wins, he will continue many of Calderón's policies but at a substantial cost -- "the risk of return to the authoritarianism of 70 years, when the military committed many murders, disappearances and torture that they have yet to be punished for."
Castañeda -- who served as foreign minister under PAN President Vicente Fox -- told The Huffington Post that he is dumbfounded by use of the Mexican army for such activities as detecting and dismantling hidden tunnels used for the drug trade in the border city of Tijuana, when tons of marijuana emerge on the U.S. side for legal sale in thousands of California dispensaries.
"In any case, if the U.S. feels that it's that important, it's entirely up to the U.S.," he said. "If it's that important they can bring back the troops from Afghanistan and put them on the border -- but on the U.S. side … Americans don't worry about it, why should we?"
Gustavo Flores-Macías, assistant professor of government at Cornell University, said violence is the only clear result of Calderón's tactics.
"There is no indication that the militarization of anti-drug efforts has reduced production or transit, but it has certainly increased violence," Flores-Macías wrote in an email.
Under a Peña Nieto presidency, tough rhetoric and a punitive approach will continue, Flores-Macías predicted, though voters said they supported the PRI candidate out of a willingness to end the drug war.
"This is not to say that the next government should turn a blind eye to the problem, as many governments in the past did," Flores-Macías added.
Castañeda anticipated that voters will turn to Peña Nieto for a shift in security strategy. "I would like to read the results tonight -- as a rejection by three-quarters of the electorate of Calderón's war," he said. "Most Mexicans -- and there are polls that show this -- think that it's not worth 60,000 lives and 60 billion dollars and human rights violations and terrible deterioration of Mexico's image in the world and, for all practical purposes, nothing to show for it."
"I hope he will do things differently," he said about Peña Nieto. "I hope he will abandon the war. It was an enormous and terribly costly and bloody mistake."
Yet Horacio Nàjera called Calderón's economic management of Mexico one of his most important achievements, despite several setbacks.
Mexico's GDP grew 3.9 percent last year -- ahead of Brazil's and that of the United States. The country also recently played host to a G20 summit. But this growth is only beginning to make up for the decimation the U.S. and global recession wrought on Mexico, whose economy is dependent on that of its northern neighbor. Most anticipate that little will change in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, regardless of who wins -- it is too important.
And poverty in Mexico has persisted. All the candidates have pledged to reduce poverty, which edged up from 44.5 percent to 46.2 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to the National Council for Evaluation of Social Development Policy.
Flores-Macías said that one of the main challenges for the next administration will be to generate conditions conducive to competition.
"There is a lot of potential for growth but growth will be constrained unless opportunities for competition are created, which will benefit consumers and improve the country’s competitiveness and ability to attract investment," he said.
While pointing out that Mexico is still generating low levels of growth, Castañeda said that the country is poised for higher rates of economic expansion.
By 2020, Castañeda projected, Mexico could become a "poor rich" country, with a GDP per capita of $25,000 and violence levels decreased to previous rates -- about 8 homicides per 100, instead of some 23 per 100.
"In any case, all of this is doable, though not easy," he said.
Castañeda argued that the most important question for the long term is how to distribute Mexico's wealth -- which none of the candidates seems well prepared to do, he said.
According to Horacio Nàjera, Calderón's problem was that "insecurity was stronger than the economic achievements and the concentration of money is in large cities, and failed to reach the campos where it is most needed."
For a country beleaguered by the violence of the drug war and a still-struggling economy, the fighting strategy needs to change, he said: "Seek to build a firm foundation between education and society, with jobs for the next generation so they are not tempted to go into drugs."
"No doubt from the context of drug violence, this is the most important election in Mexico's modern history. We risk going from a weak democracy to a narcodemocracy," he concluded.
The preliminary results announced hours after polls closed on Sunday are not final or legally valid. The official tally will come from Mexico's 300 election districts, which begin counting July 4.
This report has been updated to reflect exit polls.
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