MEXICO CITY -- Mexicans turned out in unexpectedly large numbers yesterday to vote for a new president and federal Congress. Preliminary reports indicated that the voting was largely unmarred by violence or serious irregularities.
Two independent exit polls released late last night projected that Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, the presidential candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), would win with about 50 percent of the vote.
Private TV network Television Azteca said Mr. Zedillo would win with 51.8 percent of the vote, while an exit poll and quick count carried out jointly by polling firms Indemerc-Louis Harris and Mitofsky International gave him the victory with about 50 percent.
Voter turnout, according to an estimate by Radio Chapultepec, was an astounding 39 million, out of 45.7 million people registered. It was unconfirmed.
Nearly all organizations monitoring the vote, and the local news media, reported unusually heavy turnouts. They emphasized the tranquillity in all parts of the country as the voting took place.
One source at the Civic Alliance said shortly after the polls closed: "It looks very clean. Very few violent incidents."
The Alliance is a coalition of 400 civic and human rights organizations that has assumed the role of monitoring the elections by putting observers in nearly all the 96,421 voting places throughout the country. It came into being in an attempt to prevent the continuation of the kind electoral fraud that has come to characterize this country over the years.
Even if the actual number of voters only approaches the estimates being tossed about last night before any official announcements were made, it is probable that more Mexicans voted yesterday than ever before in a presidential election in this country.
Which is not surprising. No election in this country's modern history has been so hard fought, and no election in the past 65 years has so threatened the political dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
The last polls, published a little over a week ago, had Mr. Zedillo ahead of his two principal rivals. He had a projected 38 percent of the vote, while Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the National Action Party (PAN), was given 22 percent, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, leader of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), was expected by the pollsters to garner only about 11 percent.
Of the polls there are two things people believe. They do not reflect the rural vote -- 30 percent of the total -- and they underestimate the support for Mr. Cardenas.
Should Mr. Zedillo win with less than 50 percent of the vote, that in itself would be an unprecedented setback for the PRI. It would mean more opposition members entering the House of Deputies and the Senate, and would put an end, probably for good, to the imperial presidency that has characterized Mexico.
Such an outcome would be what the historian Primitivo Rodriguez called, "The beginning of the transition to democracy."
One source of confusion and some disorder yesterday was the (( failure of the special polling places for transient Mexicans -- those not in the home precincts where they are registered. There are more than 600 of these scattered around the country to take care of people traveling.
Many, it turned out, did not have enough ballots. The Federal Election Institute underestimated the turnout. For instance, in Aguascalientes a large number of people turned up at a special polling place at a bus station, which had only 300 ballots, not enough for the crowd.
Carlos Bracho, a television actor running for a Senate seat under the PRD banner, was among the group, and he immediately accused local PRI authorities of dirty tricks.
"This is part of the culture of fraud," Mr. Bracho said.
Shortages of ballots at other special polling places were reported in other parts of the country. It triggered a brief demonstration in Guadalajara. But electoral officials said the sparsity was intentional, that an excess of ballots in circulation could contribute to fraud. An estimated 35,000 were unable to vote.
As on the days before the election, the expectations of violent demonstrations by the losers have grown apace. The Alliance published a long list of accusations of repeated violations of electoral laws by the PRI.
In all the Alliance said it had received 390 complaints from around the country during the campaign. These included the use of government trucks, helicopters, computers and other resources in the interest of PRI candidates, intimidation by factory owners of their employers to vote for the ruling party, and bribery.
The Alliance also complained that the office of the special prosecutor for electoral crimes, set up to prosecute people found doing things like those listed above, lacked the resources to do its job. More than 200 complaints have been lodged; only one has been resolved.
The possibility of instability in Mexico, arising from a series of incidents through the year, has had an adverse impact on the Mexican economy and has caused some unease in U.S. circles. Depending on how the election finally comes out, this situation could improve or worsen.
Stimulated by the promise of falling tariff barriers ordained by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico had become a rich garden for U.S. investment. But the armed uprising in January by the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas and the assassination March 23 of the PRI's first presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, caused a slowdown in the inflow of U.S. capital.
Joshua Cohen, an economist at the American Chamber of Commerce here, said: "Direct investment from the U.S. was coming in rather fast from the beginning of the year, right up to the assassination. Since then it has slowed."
U.S. governments have always been made uneasy by political turmoil in Mexico, fearful that widespread violence might send hordes of refugees fleeing northward, as had occurred during the Mexican Revolution. Those apprehensions are not great this time, according to a high U.S. official.
Even so, last week the U.S. Border Patrol was put on alert.