TOLUCA, Mexico (Reuters) - Presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto pledged to create more jobs and restore order in Mexico as he wrapped up his campaign on Wednesday, with opinion polls showing him winning Sunday’s election by a wide margin.
Mexico will elect a new president amid growing demands for an end to the grisly violence of its drug war and a stronger economy, two issues that have eroded confidence in the ruling National Action Party, or PAN.
Pena Nieto, who has led throughout the race, belongs to the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which ruled for most of the 20th century and is remembered by critics for corruption, vote-rigging and suppression of dissent.
The PRI was ousted by the conservative PAN at a 2000 election but has bounced back in the last few years, insisting it has learned from its mistakes.
Many voters frustrated by two PAN governments that failed to generate strong growth and got dragged down in the drug war hope the PRI can bring stability and a stronger government.
“We want a country that lives in peace, is calm and is safe,” Pena Nieto, 45, told tens of thousands of supporters in the central city of Toluca on the last day of campaigning.
Three polls published earlier on Wednesday showed him with a double digit lead over his rivals.
Pena Nieto underlined his commitment to change in an interview published on Wednesday in the newspaper El Universal.
“There is a new PRI ... It’s the others who have not changed. They are living in the past,” he said. “But the PRI never left. It has lost and won, competed democratically and understood change.”
Wearing red baseball caps and red and white T-shirts handed out by the party, supporters shouted “Presidente” as Pena Nieto took the stage in Toluca. But the rally was otherwise largely subdued.
“We have a candidate with new ideas,” said Domingo Santiago, 67, a retired maintenance worker who latched on to Pena Nieto’s promises to help the elderly. “I‘m not saying there weren’t abuses before, but he is seeking reform, something better for the people, without going back to the old days.”
Pena Nieto resorted to a trademark campaign tactic, signing before a notary pledges to build highways and a train to the capital if he wins.
The PAN’s victory in 2000 was hailed as a triumph of democracy, but its record on the economy and its failure to contain violent crime has crippled its hopes of staying in power.
President Felipe Calderon has struggled to improve weak growth, unable to push through many of his planned reforms because of opposition from the PRI and other parties in Congress, where the PAN has never had a majority.
Rampant violence between drug cartels and their clashes with the state has claimed more than 55,000 lives since 2007, further eroding confidence in the government.
Calderon sent in the armed forces to bring the gangs to heel soon after taking office in December 2006, but despite capturing or killing many top bosses, the bloodshed has escalated.
BREAK FROM PRI‘S PAST
Pena Nieto wants to overhaul the tax system and open up state oil monopoly Pemex to more private investment, breaking with the traditions of the PRI, which nationalized Mexico’s oil industry in 1938.
The bold steps he has promised to boost outside involvement in oil exploration, refining and production are central to his plans for faster growth.
Recent polls suggest the PRI could win a working majority in both the Senate and lower house of Congress. That would help strengthen its mandate to push through fiscal and energy reforms that stalled under Calderon.
But even if he has the majorities, Pena Nieto faces a challenge to shake up Pemex, which is struggling with a heavy tax burden, bloated workforce and oil fields in decline.
Pena Nieto’s closest rival is leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City who narrowly lost the 2006 election to Calderon and then contested the results, staging months of protests that unnerved investors in Latin America’s second-largest economy.
He has recently stirred up fears of new unrest, accusing the PRI of trying to rig the vote, although any protests may be short-lived if Pena Nieto wins by a wide margin.
A close result would raise the risk of demonstrations, particularly as Lopez Obrador has the support of a newly emerged student movement that shook up the campaign with huge rallies.
Mexican financial markets have already factored in a Pena Nieto win, so a close finish that puts his mandate and economic reforms at risk could spook investors and hit asset prices.
The final three polls of the campaign gave the PRI candidate a lead of between 10 and 17 points over Lopez Obrador with the PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota trailing in third. They were conducted between June 21 and 25 using samples of 1,200 to 2,000 eligible voters. The margin of error for the polls was 2.9 percentage points or lower.
With reporting by David Alire Garcia, Miguel Angel Gutierrez and Gabriel Stargardter in Mexico City; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray