MEXICO CITY – Mexicans voted in a tight presidential race Sunday that exposed painful class divisions, with a leftist offering himself as a savior to the poor and a conservative warning that his rival's free-spending proposals threaten the nation's stable economy.
The vote was the first since Vicente Fox's stunning victory six years ago ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. It will determine whether Mexico becomes the latest Latin American country to move to the left.
Polls predict a close race between conservative Felipe Calderon, 43, of Fox's National Action Party, and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 52, a former Mexico City mayor. The PRI's Roberto Madrazo, 53, was running a distant third, ahead of two minor candidates.
More than 24,000 observers were monitoring the vote, which also will determine three governors, Mexico City's mayor, and both houses of Congress. The congressional races are key, determining whether the next president will face the same battle Fox did in trying to push through reforms.
Exit polls by the two major Mexican television networks showed Marcelo Ebrard, of Lopez Obrador's party, easily winning the Mexico City mayor's race, and Calderon's party holding on to Fox's home state of Guanajuato and the western state of Jalisco, where the race had been expected to be tighter. In the third governor's race, Morelos, one poll showed Calderon's party slightly ahead, while the other said it was too close to call.
Voters waited in long lines, some complaining that there weren't enough ballots. One group even briefly blocked a major Mexico City thoroughfare in frustration at being turned away. Several polling centers in southern Oaxaca state, the scene of violent clashes last month, didn't open because of security concerns.
"We have not seen widespread problems, but we've seen a lot of confusion," said Ted Lewis, who was coordinating a team of 25 observers from the San Francisco-based Global Exchange.
In neighboring Guerrero state, two poll workers were shot to death before the polls opened, according to Lopez Obrador's party. Electoral officials said they were investigating, but the killings appeared to have been unrelated to the vote.
Officials hoped to announce a new president three hours after the last poll closed, based on a quick count, but cautioned they would wait if neither candidate had a strong enough lead. Some feared violence if the decision wasn't clear.
After a six-month campaign marked by mudslinging and a polarized electorate, Mexicans greeted the vote with relief. "Finally, a decision!" read the front-page headline in the Reforma newspaper.
Many polling stations opened late, forcing voters to wait more than an hour to cast their ballots. Carolina Nougue, 35, a perfume factory quality control manager, sat angry outside a poll tucked between two massive shopping malls in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood.
Nougue said she was reluctantly casting her vote for Calderon to keep Lopez Obrador out of office. She described herself as leftist but worried that Lopez Obrador would govern like radical Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and was turned off by his pledge to put the poor first.
"The division isn't between the rich and the poor," she said. "It's between the ignorant people and those who think."
In Nezahualcoyotl, a slum of 1.2 million people east of Mexico City where infrastructure hasn't kept up with explosive growth, voting was delayed by flooding from a powerful hail storm the night before. Juana Velasquez, a 63-year-old storyteller, and other residents had to spend the morning bailing water from their homes.
"Every year, it's the same. You just vote for someone who doesn't do anything," said Velasquez, who cast a protest vote for Roberto Campa, of the minor New Alliance Party.
Some simply refused to take part.
"We aren't going to vote," said Maria del Carmen, a 24-year-old student marching down Mexico City's Reforma Avenue with Zapatista rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos. "We don't believe in the system and we are going to show our strength."
Early riser Lopez Obrador, dressed in a brown leather jacket, was the first candidate to cast his ballot, and had to wait nearly an hour before volunteers were ready.
"We did our part," said Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party. "We are going to wait to see what the people of Mexico decide."
During his campaign, he accused Calderon of catering to the rich and promised he would govern for Mexico's 50 million poor. Many followed his message like a religion, crowning him with flowers at rallies and plastering their cars with his optimistic slogan: "Smile. We are going to win."
"I believe he represents hope, especially for people with low salaries who are looking for a more egalitarian country," said Armando Juarez, a 46-year-old high school teacher.
Calderon has warned that Lopez Obrador's proposals, including government handouts for the elderly and poor, will bankrupt the nation.
Wearing a suit and tie, he showed his right palm before voting in Mexico City, a reference to his "clean hands" campaign slogan.
"It has been a tense, competitive campaign," he said, adding: "Tomorrow, we have to start a new era of reconciliation."
Casting his ballot in his home city of Villahermosa on the Gulf coast, Madrazo said he was sure he would win, despite trailing third in the polls. "We ask all the candidates to respect the results," he said.
Madrazo painted himself as the alternate to the "radical left and intolerant right."
Mexican law limits presidents to one term, and Fox plans to retire to his ranch in December.
On Sunday — six years to the day after his historic victory and his 64th birthday — he gave an ink-stained thumbs-up to show he had voted and said: "I know that there are no Mexicans who want to go against democracy."
All three candidates promised to strengthen relations with the United States while opposing increased border security measures unpopular in Mexico.
The estimated 11 million Mexicans living in the United States were allowed to vote from abroad for the first time, but the 32,632 ballots they cast weren't likely to make much of a difference.
Many of those who missed out on the new mail-in vote traveled to Mexico on Sunday to cast their ballots at polling stations set up along the border, including Maria Salome Rodriguez, a 38-year-old farm worker.
She and her husband drove from Fresno, California after their absentee ballots were rejected because of a mistaken address, and waited for two hours to cast their votes in Tijuana.
"We want to vote so Mexico can improve and offer jobs to people here, because even though we're far away, our heart is still with our homeland," Rodriguez said.