MEXICO CITY (AP) — With a promise to "leave behind the practices of the old politics," Mexican presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto held his first and only mass rally in Mexico City, the nation's capital, on Sunday, one week ahead of the July 1 presidential elections.
Pena Nieto sought to break with the reputation of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, as the sclerotic, antiquated party that governed Mexico for 71 uninterrupted years, until it lost the 2000 elections.
"I am part of a new generation that grew up under democracy," Pena Nieto told tens of thousands of cheering supporters at the Azteca soccer stadium on the city's southern edge. The 105,000-person capacity stadium appeared almost full, with only the upper ring of seats empty.
"We know how to govern democratically," Pena Nieto pledged. He added, "In this election, all of Mexico is going to win." He stressed increasing wages "so that you earn more."
However, some of the party's old practices were on display at the rally, where security was extremely tight.
Many supporters were trucked in by busloads from surrounding Mexico state, where Pena Nieto served as governor until last year. Many descended from the buses still clutching the bag lunches, hats and T-shirts they had been given. The stadium was awash in red shirts, the party's campaign colors.
"Our party provided the bus to bring us here and take us back," said Antonia Almaraz , 37, a housewife who came with her neighbors and children from the town of Tequixquiac, in Mexico state.
Access was by ticket only, which organizers, many of them PRI candidates for local office, handed out to their contingents outside the stadium.
Organizers reportedly moved the event up an hour to avoid the kind of anti-PRI protests that have dogged Pena Nieto in the capital, where the rival leftist Democratic Revolution Party is strong. A PRI spokesman denied the reported reasons for the change, saying the rally had only been moved up a few minutes.
Some at the rally weren't sure if the PRI had changed, or if Pena Nieto would be able to change it once in power. In its 71 years in power, the PRI often governed by a mix of hand-out programs, repression and vote fraud. Others were persuaded by Pena Nieto's message of a new PRI.
"They have learned from the errors ... that the party committed in the past," said Marina Gomez, 48, a financial industry employee from the nearby state of Tlaxcala.
Other parties, such as the ruling National Action Party, have had trouble filling stadiums.
Sunday also saw thousands of anti-Pena Nieto protesters gathered in the heart of Mexico City to demonstrate against what they claimed would be a return to the past under the candidate, who leads all major polls in the race.
Alma Hernandez, 41, a secretary, said she didn't think the PRI had changed.
"As far as I'm concerned, (Pena Nieto) is deceiving the people," Hernandez said.
She held up a banner showing photos of old, much-hated figures from past PRI governments, including ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who is widely blamed for the 1994 peso devaluation and ensuing economic crisis.
"(Pena Nieto) was brought up and supported by these people, who have stolen a lot from the country," Hernandez said.