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Mexico's new leader faces uphill battle

The Associated Press

MEXICO CITY -- The apparent victor of Mexico's presidential race, Enrique Peña Nieto, struggled Monday with the sticky bonds of his party's notorious past, the limitation of his mandate and an opponent who has yet to concede defeat.

His long-ruling and now-returned Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, won only about 38 percent of the vote and is unlikely to get a majority in Congress. In fact, it may lose seats. He faces an old guard in the PRI that still exercises considerable power, a war against fierce drug cartels and a still sluggish economy.

His closest rival, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who polled a higher-than-expected 32 percent, has refused to accept the loss, and many of his militant followers are suspicious of the results.

President Barack Obama called Peña Nieto on Monday to congratulate him.

Peña Nieto's account of the talk suggested his party has left behind the touchy nationalism of the past. He expressed interest in cooperation in security, commerce and infrastructure, but didn't bring up the traditional Mexican issue of U.S. immigration reform to help the 12 million Mexicans who live in the United States.

Mexicans voted Sunday above all for a known quantity, the camera-friendly candidate of the party that ruled Mexico without interruption from 1929 to 2000. But the PRI returns to power in unknown political terrain, where Mexico is more divided, more violent and less tightly controlled, raising the potential for political disputes on top of the drug war.

The battle against drug cartels has cost more than 47,500 lives and may have contributed to the decline of President Felipe Calderón's conservative National Action Party, whose candidate dropped to third place with about 25 percent of the preliminary vote count.

Peña Nieto may dissuade some migrants from returning from the United States, despite a faltering U.S. job market. The vast majority of the 40,000 expatriates who voted cast ballots against him. Many immigrants in California said yesterday that they were shocked that his PRI, which largely convinced them they should leave their homeland, has returned to power.

"I think most immigrants kind of fled Mexico because of the PRI, and they still carry visions of a PRI that was corrupt and murderous," said Guadalupe Sandoval, 18, a San Diego college student who said she watched the race closely. "I'm definitely surprised."

Sandoval said her family would have considered returning if Lopez Obrador, had won.

Sandoval's family left Mexico a year before the PRI ended its 71-year rule in 2000. Illegal immigration has dramatically dropped since then because of the crackdown at the U.S. border after 9/11 and the slowing of the U.S. economy.

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