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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Mexicans go to the polls this Sunday to elect a new president. The current frontrunner is Enrique Pena Nieto. He's a member of the PRI party, which dominated Mexico for more than 70 years before being ousted in 2000. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the candidate insists his party has changed its old authoritarian ways.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Enrique Pena Nieto's campaign songs tell about an honest man who will bring peace to the country and point it in the right direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: That is a much different tune then that of the old PRI party, which earned a reputation for widespread corruption, rigging elections and colluding with drug traffickers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Enrique Pena Nieto.

KAHN: This week, nearly 100,000 party faithful packed into the massive Aztec Stadium in Mexico City to see the candidate. Many traveled hours from nearby states on buses, filled with meals and snacks, all paid for by the PRI. Pena Nieto told the crowd together they will leave the old political practices behind.

ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He said we will be a modern government committed to democratic values of liberty, transparency and a full accounting of resources. Referring to the past 12 years under the National Action Party or PAN's presidency, Pena Nieto said it was time to leave behind economic stagnation, social decline and violence. Polls show voters reject the current PAN government and the leftist PRD candidate for Pena Nieto. In nearly all polls, he's held on to a strong double-digit lead for months. Voter Romel Velez Gonzales, who came to the rally, said the current PAN administration hasn't done much. The country isn't safer or more prosperous.

ROMEL VELEZ GONZALES: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Velez, who runs a small business, says when it comes down to it he doesn't really believe the PRI has changed, but he's willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is a stunning shift in popular opinion for the once reviled party that ruled Mexico with a strong arm for nearly all the 20th century. But the right of center PAN party wasn't able to fulfill its promises of political and economic reforms. On top of that, current President Felipe Calderon's war on narco-trafficking has left more than 50,000 dead and vast parts of northern Mexico ungovernable. Political analyst Joy Langston Hawkes says, meanwhile, the PRI party masterfully regrouped and has come back roaring. They now hold hundreds of mayorships and more importantly a majority of the governorships.

JOY LANGSTON HAWKES: Governors do a lot. They are very, very important in vote winning and vote mobilization.

KAHN: And Langston says, this time around, the PRI picked, or as some critics say groomed, a very popular candidate in Pena Nieto. He was the governor of the state of Mexico, just outside the capital, and left with high approval ratings. He's young, handsome and is married to one of the country's most famous soap opera stars. And recently, Pena Nieto has picked up some influential endorsements. To much surprise and criticism, former PAN President Vicente Fox announced he's backing Pena Nieto. Fox told NPR he's convinced that Pena Nieto is the only candidate capable of breaking through Mexico's crippling political gridlock.

VICENTE FOX: Because I know him, because I worked with him, me as president, him as governor. Because I know he's a professional. Because I know he is humble enough to form a talented team.

KAHN: Then Fox's former foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, a longtime critic of the PRI, said people shouldn't worry about what looks like an inevitable return of the party to power. Castaneda says Mexico is not the same country it was back in the 1990s. Its democratic institutions, while not fully matured, are strong.

JORGE CASTANEDA: I happen to think that our system or representative democracy is OK, so I can't see how even a formerly authoritarian party would perform in an authoritarian way.

KAHN: And Castaneda says Mexico's relationship with the world is much different too. Mexico has signed on to multiple commercial and human rights treaties with countries who'll exert immense pressure at the first signs of a backward democratic retreat. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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