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'Another chance': Mexico's old rulers claim presidential election victory

The 45-year-old former governor of the state of Mexico and husband of a soap opera star is earning rock-star levels of attention, despite concerns that he is affiliated with a political party voted out over a decade ago amid allegations of corruption. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

MEXICO CITY, Mexico -- Mexico's old rulers claimed victory in a presidential election on Sunday, ending 12 years in opposition after a campaign dominated by a sputtering economy and rampant drug violence.

After pledging to restore order and ramp up economic growth, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had a clear lead over his rivals in exit polls and a "quick count" conducted by electoral authorities.

Although his main rival said it was too early to concede defeat, the 45-year-old Pena Nieto delivered a late-night victory speech to cheering supporters, and a senior electoral official said the PRI candidate's lead was "irreversible."

"Mexicans have given our party another chance. We are going to honor it with results," a visibly moved Pena Nieto told followers packed inside the PRI headquarters in Mexico City.

Tomas Bravo / Reuters

Enrique Pena Nieto claps alongside his wife Angelica Rivera after exit polls showed him in first place in Mexico City on Sunday.

Dramatic comeback
Jubilant supporters waved banners sporting caricatures of their candidate and his trademark quiff, and confetti in the red, green and white of the Mexican flag -- and the PRI's colors -- rained down inside the hall.

Outgoing President Felipe Calderon congratulated Pena Nieto on his triumph, which completed a dramatic comeback for the PRI.

With returns in from more two-thirds of polling booths, Pena Nieto had 37 percent of the vote, more than four percentage points clear of leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. His lead was slowly widening as the night drew on. 

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Outgoing President Felipe Calderon congratulated Pena Nieto on his triumph, which completed a dramatic comeback for the PRI. 

With returns in from more two-thirds of polling booths, Pena Nieto had 37 percent of the vote, more than four percentage points clear of leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. 

Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP - Getty Images

Leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador did not concede defeat on Sunday.

Only about 700 gathered at Lopez Obrador's campaign rally, he said he would wait for the official results before conceding defeat and canceled plans to proceed to the Zocalo, the main square he filled as recently as Wednesday.

"We have information that indicates something different from what they're saying officially," he said. "We're not going to act in an irresponsible manner." (Link to statement in Spanish-language newspaper El Universal)

Lopez Obrador could choose to challenge the election, as he did six years ago when he narrowly lost to Calderon and launched months of protests against alleged fraud. After his 2006 loss, his supporters closed down Mexico City's main boulevard for a month and a half to try to force a recall. When that failed, he declared himself  the country's president before thousands of supporters massed in the Zocalo, the capital's central plaza.  

Initial projections by Milenio television suggested the PRI had not won enough votes for an absolute majority in either the Senate or the lower house of Congress. 

And Pena Nieto's advantage was much less convincing than the PRI had hoped for, with most polls in the immediate run-up to the election showing he would win by 10 to 15 percentage points. 

Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, trailed with less than 26 percent of the vote in Sunday's election. It was a humiliating defeat for conservative Calderon's party, worn out after a dozen years in power. 

Inspiring high hopes when it was elected in 2000, the party has failed to ignite stronger economic growth and Calderon has had no answer to the rampant violence of Mexico's drug war. 

Johan Ordonez / AFP - Getty Images

Josefina Vazquez Mota, from the right-wing PAN, accepted her defeat on Sunday.

"Nothing has improved since the PAN got in," said Mexico City plumber Raimundo Salazar, 44. "The PRI understands how things work here. And it knows how to manage the drug gangs." 

Pena Nieto's plans include raising tax revenues, a business-friendly overhaul of labor laws and steps to open the struggling state-owned oil giant Pemex to more private investment. 

Coercion, corruption
The planned reforms were also pushed by the PAN under Calderon, only to be stalled by the PRI in Congress. Indeed, with its close ties to the oil workers' union, the PRI could prove a bigger obstacle to revamping Pemex than the PAN.

The PRI for 71 years ruled as a single party known for coercion and corruption, but also for building Mexico's institutions and social services. It was often accused of stealing elections, most infamously the 1988 presidential vote. But PRI governments were also known for keeping a lid on organized crime, whose battles with government and each other under Calderon have taken more than 50,000 lives and the traumatized the country.

Mexico's drug war: No sign of 'light at the end of the tunnel'

Repeating a popular belief of many Pena Nieto supporters, Martha Trejo, 37, of Tampico said, "He'll stabilize the cartels. He'll negotiate so they don't hurt innocents."

Travelers run for cover as federal officers are killed by cops suspected of drug trafficking. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

In his victory speech, Pena Nieto vowed that he wouldn't make pacts with organized crime. However, he said he would focus on curbing violence.

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He built his reputation as governor of the State of Mexico in 2005-2011, where he oversaw solid economic growth and brought down the state government's debt. 

"He did a really good job ... building lots of hospitals, roads and schools," said Lino Posadas, 30, a parking attendant from the town of San Jose del Rincon in the state. 

But to many critics, though, Pena Nieto is a product created by Mexico's main television companies to serve as a proxy for the country's biggest businesses and the ruling elites in the PRI. 

"He's been imposed on us by powerful interests like the TV stations and old presidents," said Javier Aguilar, a 62-year-old biochemist. "How can it be that a country this miserable is home to the world's richest man?" he said, referring to tycoon Carlos Slim. 

Msnbc.com staff, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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