MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's presidential campaign entered the home stretch Monday, with less than a week left until voters cast ballots in a race that could return the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to power. The PRI ruled virtually unchallenged and often with a heavy hand for 71 years before losing the presidency in 2000.
The top three candidates crisscrossed the country over the weekend rallying thousands of supporters at huge events in the final days of official campaigning.
The PRI's poll-leading candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, on Sunday held a closing rally at the cavernous Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Leftist coalition candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, runner-up in the 2006 election, closed his campaign in the capitals of western states Nayarit and Jalisco.
Josefina Vazquez Mota of the incumbent National Action Party, or PAN, rallied supporters in the port city of Coatzacoalcos, in the state of Veracruz.
"I am not like the PRI candidate who has brought a foreigner to take care of our families," Vazquez Mota said, in reference to Peña Nieto's appointment of Gen. Oscar Naranjo of Colombia to be an external advisor in security matters if he wins.
Mexicans will vote Sunday, in balloting that will also pick senators and deputies in Congress and six governors in races that could similarly see gains for the PRI, polls show. The PAN could lose two states it currently governs, Morelos and Jalisco, which have seen increases in violence tied to the government's campaign against organized crime.
The #YoSoy 132 movement managed to organize Mexico's first non-official "citizens debate" online June 19, with three of four candidates. Peña Nieto declined to attend, saying he believed the movement opposed his candidacy.
Another large demonstration against Peña Nieto was held in the center of Mexico City on Sunday. But despite the protests, most polls still show him withstanding early fumbles and maintaining his lead.
Throughout the campaign, Peña Nieto, 45, has been forced to reassure observers of his credentials to govern. In December, he was unable to name three books that influenced his life, and allegations have surfaced during the campaign that a former PRI governor of the violence-plagued state of Tamaulipas, Tomas Yarrington, has ties to drug traffickers.
The PRI ruled the country from the end of the Mexican Revolution until it was voted out in 2000. Opponents fear its return could lead to authoritarian echoes of the past, such as repression and censorship.
Peña Nieto has campaigned on a message of inclusion, and has mostly refrained from attacking his opponents.
"I propose to the nation a plainly democratic presidency," he said Sunday. "I am part of a generation that has grown up with democracy and I aspire to be a president that governs by respecting liberties, listening to all and including the voices of everyone."
All three candidates have essentially similar security platforms, The Times reported Sunday, suggesting that the election is unlikely to reshape the drug war that has left more than 50,000 dead and scores missing in nearly six years.
Since 2000, two successive center-right governments under the PAN saw economic stability but few significant reforms. Drug-related violence has exploded since 2006. Vazquez Mota has dipped to third in some polls, in a sign of weariness with the results of the drug war.
On the left, charismatic populist Lopez Obrador remains at least 10 points behind Peña Nieto. He asked supporters Sunday to use social networks to "guard the vote" to avoid a repeat of the contested results in 2006, which saw him lose by 0.56 point.
"I want to clarify this so that no one will think it's a small thing we're looking for," Lopez Obrador said in Guadalajara. "It's not only about reaching a public office. What we want is to achieve the rebirth of Mexico."
Also on Sunday, at least 26 people died when a passenger bus plunged off a road in the southern state of Guerrero. The victims were identified as supporters of the Democratic Revolution Party who were headed to a campaign event to support a minor leftist party candidate for a local mayoral race.
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, center in white shirt, rallies supporters at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on Sunday. He stands with Beatriz Paredes, PRI candidate for mayor of Mexico City, left, and his wife, actress Angelica Rivera. Credit: Alex Cruz / European Pressphoto Agency