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RULING PARTY RETAINS OVERWHELMING MAJORITY

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The opposition's last hopes to weaken the ruling party's hold on power collapsed Wednesday, with official returns showing the party winning the presidency and an overwhelming congressional majority.

The nearly completed vote count showed that the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had won an unprecedented gamble - keeping its 65-year hold on power while cleaning up the worst excesses of the electoral system.Mexican and foreign election monitors said Tuesday that they found a wide range of irregularities, ranging from pressure on voters to outright fraud in some areas. But they said the problems probably would not have affected the outcome.

"We are facing a historic opportunity to create a government for the common good in which the interests of all are recognized," said the PRI's Ernesto Zedillo, who won election to a six-year term.

With 88.12 percent of the votes counted, Zedillo had 50.08 percent - just shy of the 50.4 percent that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari won in 1988 elections widely considered fraudulent.

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the conservative National Action Party followed with 26.81 percent, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party had 17.03 percent.

The turnout, above 77 percent, was far higher than the 50 percent many had expected.

Final results were due Wed-nes-day.

Opposition parties had hoped to hold the PRI below 50 percent in Congress for the first time since the party was founded in 1929, forcing it to negotiate with other parties to pass legislation.

But the Federal Electoral Institute said late Tuesday the PRI was leading in a whopping 278 of 300 congressional races and in virtually all 64 Senate races. Another 200 seats in Congress and 32 in the Senate will be divided according to vote percentages for the nine parties.

Under new election reforms, no party will be allowed the two-thirds majority needed to modify the constitution, but the PRI is likely to come just short of that.

The election was the most-scrutinized in Mexican history, with 82,000 observers at the polls. It was also carried out under reforms that put a nonpartisan panel in charge of the voting and imposed stiff new penalties for fraud.

Fernandez praised the reforms but complained of "millions of votes extracted through pressure, threats and double-dealings by an officialism which refuses to disappear."

"No further changes in the legislation are needed," he said. "What is needed are changes in conduct, modifications in consciousness."

He said that if media coverage had not been slanted in favor of the PRI, he would have won "without doubt."