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Voters end 71 years of PRI rule in Mexico

Tough-talking Fox gains a stunning electoral victory

SHARE Voters end 71 years of PRI rule in Mexico

MEXICO CITY — Vicente Fox, a tough-talking former Coca-Cola executive, shattered the governing party's 71-year hold on the presidency in a stunning electoral victory that marked a climax in Mexico's transition to democracy.

The victory threw Mexico's entire political culture in reverse. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the world's longest-governing party, suddenly found itself in the opposition, and a party that long had only limited regional support became Mexico's most powerful overnight.

As results streamed in from the Sunday elections, Fox's National Action Party also won two governorships and was assured of being the dominant party in Congress.

"Today Mexico is already different. Today Mexico enters the 21st century with its right foot forward," Fox told 15,000 supporters at an early morning rally Monday under the gilded angel of Mexico City's Independence Monument. He takes office Dec. 1.

With 87 percent of the official count tallied, Fox had 43.4 percent and Francisco Labastida of the ruling party had 35.2 percent, a gap likely to narrow as rural votes come in. Preliminary turnout was a record 65 percent.

Just three hours after the voting booths closed — with exit polls and preliminary results showing a clear Fox advantage — President Ernesto Zedillo acknowledged the opposition's win in a nationally televised speech and said he had called to congratulate him.

"Today we have been able to prove that ours is already a mature democracy, with solid and trustworthy institutions and especially with a conscientious and civic-minded citizenry," Zedillo said.

It was a sight that no Mexican had ever seen: their president conceding his party's defeat to the opposition. It was a sight many thought they'd never see.

The governing party has long been synonymous with Mexico's national identity. For most of its history, it used fear and favors to maintain ironclad control over almost all aspects of Mexican political life. Though reforms cleaned up Mexico's electoral process and opposition candidates won governorships and ended the PRI's majority in Congress, Mexico's powerful presidency seemed untouchable.

Mexican financial markets soared in early trading Monday. Investors cheered the results of the vote that ended months of political uncertainty.

Mexico's free-floating peso strengthened almost 3 percent against the dollar. Its benchmark 48-hour peso gained 30 centavos to 9.54 to the dollar.

The Mexico City stock market's leading index, the IPC, surged more than 5 percent.

Fox launched his campaign three years before election day — an unusually long time in Mexican politics — as a governor famed for his electoral struggles with the PRI but with few hopes of national victory. His National Action Party had only limited, regional support.

But he built a giant campaign war chest, advertised heavily and quickly climbed in the polls. Wearing cowboy boots and giant "FOX" belt buckle, the tall, rugged-looking candidate stressed both his roots on a rural ranch and his business savvy as the former regional president of Coca-Cola.

Fox campaigned on promises to fight corruption, improve education and help the poor. But his real message was summed up in his one-word campaign slogan: "ya," or "enough already." He argued it was time for change and only he could beat the PRI.

Labastida, the PRI candidate, was an uncharismatic party loyalist who had held the No. 2 position in the Zedillo government. Given Zedillo's popularity and the power of the PRI's political machine, he was the favorite to win the presidency.

The third-place candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Democratic Revolution party, was seen as an obstacle to a Fox victory. Running in his third consecutive presidential race, Cardenas had little hope of winning but was expected to divide the anti-PRI vote.

Most pre-election opinion polls had showed Labastida with a slight lead over Fox but with a margin tight enough to be considered a statistical tie.

Shortly after Zedillo spoke, Labastida effectively conceded defeat, saying: "The citizens have made a decision that we should respect, and I'll set the example myself."

Former President Jimmy Carter hailed Mexico's election as free and fair and predicted Fox would be a good friend of the United States.

Speaking from Mexico City Monday, Carter told CNN that in the 12 years his organization — the Atlanta-based Carter Center — had monitored elections in Mexico, the latest poll was the fairest.

"This one is almost perfect. I think President (Ernesto) Zedillo deserves a lot of credit for the reforms he instituted," Carter said.

The European Union's executive office welcomed the outcome of the election and anticipated closer relations as result of a new Europe-Mexico free trade agreement, which entered into force this weekend.

The PRI lost not only the presidency but almost everything else as well. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Democratic Revolution won Mexico City's mayorship. National Action captured the governorship of Morelos state from the PRI and held onto the governorship of Fox's home state, Guanajuato.

Federal Electoral Institute President Jose Woldenberg reported that National Action was leading in half of the 300 directly elected seats in the lower house of Congress, to 125 for the PRI and 25 for Democratic Revolution. When 200 proportional seats are allotted, National Action will have the largest faction, though not a majority. However, National Action had a strong chance for a majority in the Senate.

In his victory speeches, Fox — who also celebrated his 58th birthday Sunday — stressed his desire to reach out to other parties and to all Mexicans.

"From today forward, we need to unite. We have to work together to make Mexico the great country we have all dreamed of," he told supporters. "Let's celebrate today, because beginning tomorrow there's a lot of work to do."