— After 71 years, Mexico’s ruling party has lost its grip on power.
President Ernesto Zedillo declared opposition candidate Vicente Fox winner of the nation’s presidential elections, something that would have been unthinkable not too long ago.
Fox, of the National Action Party — known by its Spanish initials, PAN — defeated Francisco Labastida of Zedillo’s Institutional Revolution Party, or PRI, which has ruled Mexico for much of the past century.
Preliminary results “are sufficient and trustworthy enough to say that the next president of the republic will be Vicente Fox,” Zedillo said in a nationally televised statement. “I have telephoned him to express my sincere congratulations.”
Moments later, ruling-party candidate Labastida said, “The citizens have made a decision that we should respect, and I’ll set the example myself.”
End of an Era
Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive and rancher, called Sunday a historic day for Mexico.
“From today forward, we need to unite. We have to work together to make Mexico the great country we have all dreamed of,” he said.
The vote was the first in more than a century in which the outcome wasn’t clear beforehand. Despite hundreds of allegations of pressure and vote-buying — most perpetrated by the ruling party — the elections were widely seen as Mexico’s fairest ever.
People began gathering beneath the gilded angel of Mexico City’s Independence Monument, waving the blue-and-white flag of Fox’s PAN while plastic trumpets blared amid chants of “Yes you could!”
Fox wasted no time taking his message of reform to a U.S. audience. A day after his victory, Fox told ABCNEWS’ Nightline that he hoped to improve Mexico’s relationship with the United States by solving problems tied to migration, drug trafficking and trading.
“We’re going to give the mother of all battles against organized crime in Mexico,” Fox said on Nightline. “We will begin by eradicating corruption from within government becauise all of our police corps are totally contaminated.”
Fox won between 39 and 45 percent of the vote, according to quick counts by the independent Federal Electoral Institute, while Labastida had between 35 and 38.9 percent of the vote. It could take up to three days before the final numbers are in.
Many voters rose early to stand in long lines before many polling stations were even open to decide between Labastida, a straight-laced career politician from the ruling party, or Fox, a tough-talking rancher from the center-right opposition.
Labastida’s party has held the presidency of Latin America’s second biggest economy and the United States’s second biggest trading partner since 1929, when the PRI was founded.
Fox’s supporters are mostly young, urban and from the growing dot-com generation.
“I think it’s the most important election in probably Mexican modern history, and I think the Mexican people know and are not going to let the opportunity fade away,” said Enrique Krause, a Mexican historian.
In Mexico City, which holds the biggest concentration of voters, a steady stream of voters filled polling stations throughout the day Sunday. Many people rose early and stood in long lines before many of the 113,000 voting stations across the country had even opened.
Fox was among the first voters at about 8:30 a.m local time in his hometown of San Cristobal, Guanajuato. As he went to cast a ballot, a group of children played the traditional Mexican song “Las Mananitas,” to celebrate his 58th birthday, which was Sunday.
Thousands of Mexicans living in the United States crossed the border in caravans arranged by political parties or committed individuals determined not to miss what many see as a historic vote.
Mexicans with valid voting cards walked or drove to 64 special booths — with just 750 ballots each — in the country’s six border states. The booths saved many Mexicans from having to make a long journey to home election districts.
“This is something we have to do if we’re going to see the fundamental changes we need to see in our country,” said David Silva, 50, an immigrant rights activist from Sunnyside, Wash., who drove to the border city of Tijuana to cast his vote.
Preventing Voter Fraud
Mexico’s elections have a long tradition of electoral fraud, but $1 billion worth of safeguards and new equipment put in place by the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, a federal electoral watchdog given autonomy in 1996, are expected to reduce the chances of interference.
The government said it has authorized 860 foreigners to visit Mexico to observe the voting. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is here, as is former Secretary of State James Baker and delegations sent by the Republican and Democratic parties.
To help prevent fraud at voting booths, regulations required people to first show their photo-bearing credential to officials before stepping into the booths shielded by a white drape. Once they had completed a ballot and slipped it through the slots of the clear plastic ballot boxes, voters’ thumbs were stained with a specially formulated indelible ink so they couldn’t vote again.
“Perfect. I say this is perfect,” said voter Eugenia de Lourdes Belen at a polling station in Mexico City. “It’s been such a long time since I have felt so comfortable with voting. And it makes me happy to see so many people out here.”
Challenger’s Dramatic Rise
Fox is an American-style success story. He rose from a stock boy to head Coca-Cola’s Mexico division. In 1995, he ran a successful campaign for governor in his home state of Guanajuato. At 6-foot-6, Fox leaves an extra-large impression. He is folksy and irreverent. He has called his opponent “sissy,” “shorty” and “transvestite.”
Mexicans love it. He has tapped in to the frustrations of a population, concerned with corruption, crime and dirty politics. “People want change,” Fox said.
And many Mexicans apparently voted for Fox, even those put off by his rude language, his stand against abortion and his militant Catholicism, simply because they believed he could unseat seven decades of PRI rule.
End of an Era
The PRI was founded in 1929 as an alliance of rival factions from the post-revolutionary army and has long monopolized Mexican life. In its first few decades, the party straightened out the nation’s finances, built thousands of schools and clinics, and generally raised living standards.
PAN was formed nine years later by Catholic intellectuals opposed to the land reform and other policies they considered to be socialist. Since its inception PAN has always been the most important opposition party. But it had little influence during its first 50 years.
Only in recent years have opposition parties, especially PAN, made inroads in Congress and at the state level, partly due to electoral reforms to stop vote fraud, a tool used in the past by the PRI to ensure victory.
Also up for grabs in were both houses of Congress, governors of two states and the powerful post of mayor of Mexico City’s Federal District, the country’s political and economic heart with a population of 8.6 million. Mexico, with, 97.4 million people, is the world’s most populous Spanish-speaking nation. In the presidential election, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, leader of Mexico’s political left and former mayor of Mexico City, and two minor candidates also ran. ABCNEWS’ Mort Dean, Deb Amos and Alice Maggin, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.