Votes were cast Sunday in the election for the new president of Mexico, and Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto declared victory early Monday morning after a preliminary count published by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) showed him with a decisive lead.

The count, based on a sample of initial results from more than 7,500 polling booths in Mexico, was narrower than final polls had projected: Peña Nieto had 37.6 percent of the vote, while his closest rival, "leftist" Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), had 32.2 percent, according to Reuters. Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party (PAN), had 25.4 percent of the vote, and had conceded almost immediately after exit polls indicated similar results. Though an electoral official called Peña Nieto's lead "irreversible" and congratulated the candidate, Lopez Obrador said he would not concede until the official, final results were announced, Reuters reported.

"Mexicans have given our party another chance," Peña Nieto told supporters.

Yet even before exit polls projected a winner, different narratives competed to explain what the elections mean for Mexico: a regression, a revolution, a referendum on the current president -- or merely resignation on the part of voters.

A victory for Peña Nieto would mark a return to power for the PRI, which, before being ousted in 2000, ruled Mexico for 70 years. To some, a Peña Nieto presidency feels like a fait accompli and would mean a regression, the restoration of what has been referred to as "the perfect dictatorship."

This perspective on the elections and Peña Nieto's candidacy is the catalyst for the student-led protest movement known as "YoSoy132." While against Peña Nieto, members of YoSoy132 say that no candidate speaks for them -- though Obrador is believed to have benefited from a ratings boost as a result of his identification with the movement. To some, YoSoy132 has the stirrings of revolution -- a "Mexican Spring."

Other analysts argue that the seeming certainty of Peña Nieto's presidency serves as a referendum on the record of current PAN President Felipe Calderón. And the expected dynamic of Vazquez Mota standing out as Mexico's first female presidential candidate for a major party has been deflated by the weight of more than 50,000 deaths since Calderón initiated his war against the drug cartels in 2006.

Though turnout among Mexico's more than 79 million voters is expected to be about 65 percent, many express the belief that the races for the six-year presidency and a large number of other seats will be decided without their votes. Fear of voter fraud and illegitimacy remains. Either exhaustion from experience -- from nearly a century of single-party rule or from the everyday violence of the drug war -- resigns many Mexicans to the belief that all politicians are the same.

Yet Mexico's complexity prevents the current election saga from adhering to one simple narrative; the reality is far more nuanced.

"This is Mexico," Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister who is now a New York University professor, told The Huffington Post from a treadmill in Mexico City on Sunday morning. "Everything is here is sort of true, sort of fake. Nothing is ever completely authentic in Mexico, ever … That's the way it is."

MOOD IN MEXICO

"This is the most polarized election in the history of Mexico," Luis Horacio Nàjera wrote in Spanish from Canada, where he serves as a research fellow at the Centre for Global Security Studies at the University of Toronto. "There is no sense of Mexico moving forward … That's not good because whoever wins will not achieve a true transformation of the country." A journalist who once covered crime in Ciudad Juárez, Horacio Nàjera fled with his family to Canada after threats on his life.

"Unfortunately, the differences between regions of the country and the drug war are key to these divisions in Mexican society," Horacio Nàjera said. "Many are tired of the narco war, and others are tired of social and economic inequalities."

Horacio Nàjera, who worked as a janitor when he first moved to Canada because he couldn't find another media job, is not voting in the elections. He can't vote absentee because of his immigration status in Canada, he said.

"Calderón made a mistake at the beginning of his administration and that was to start a war with an enemy who he does not know," Horacio Nàjera said.

Although the perceived level of violence has abated somewhat, Horacio Nàjera pointed to recent shootings in Mexico City's airport and a car bomb explosion in Nuevo Laredo that could be seen across the nearby border in United States as a sign that security will continue be a concern. Violence in the past has led to lower voter turnout in key elections in Mexico.

Horacio Nàjera said he believes that if Peña Nieto wins, he will continue many of Calderón's policies but at a substantial cost -- "the risk of return to the authoritarianism of 70 years, when the military committed many murders, disappearances and torture that they have yet to be punished for."

Castañeda -- who served as foreign minister under PAN President Vicente Fox -- told The Huffington Post that he is dumbfounded by use of the Mexican army for such activities as detecting and dismantling hidden tunnels used for the drug trade in the border city of Tijuana, when tons of marijuana emerge on the U.S. side for legal sale in thousands of California dispensaries.

"In any case, if the U.S. feels that it's that important, it's entirely up to the U.S.," he said. "If it's that important they can bring back the troops from Afghanistan and put them on the border -- but on the U.S. side … Americans don't worry about it, why should we?"

Gustavo Flores-Macías, assistant professor of government at Cornell University, said violence is the only clear result of Calderón's tactics.

"There is no indication that the militarization of anti-drug efforts has reduced production or transit, but it has certainly increased violence," Flores-Macías wrote in an email.

Under a Peña Nieto presidency, tough rhetoric and a punitive approach will continue, Flores-Macías predicted, though voters said they supported the PRI candidate out of a willingness to end the drug war.

"This is not to say that the next government should turn a blind eye to the problem, as many governments in the past did," Flores-Macías added.

Castañeda anticipated that voters will turn to Peña Nieto for a shift in security strategy. "I would like to read the results tonight -- as a rejection by three-quarters of the electorate of Calderón's war," he said. "Most Mexicans -- and there are polls that show this -- think that it's not worth 60,000 lives and 60 billion dollars and human rights violations and terrible deterioration of Mexico's image in the world and, for all practical purposes, nothing to show for it."

"I hope he will do things differently," he said about Peña Nieto. "I hope he will abandon the war. It was an enormous and terribly costly and bloody mistake."

Yet Horacio Nàjera called Calderón's economic management of Mexico one of his most important achievements, despite several setbacks.

Mexico's GDP grew 3.9 percent last year -- ahead of Brazil's and that of the United States. The country also recently played host to a G20 summit. But this growth is only beginning to make up for the decimation the U.S. and global recession wrought on Mexico, whose economy is dependent on that of its northern neighbor. Most anticipate that little will change in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, regardless of who wins -- it is too important.

And poverty in Mexico has persisted. All the candidates have pledged to reduce poverty, which edged up from 44.5 percent to 46.2 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to the National Council for Evaluation of Social Development Policy.

Flores-Macías said that one of the main challenges for the next administration will be to generate conditions conducive to competition.

"There is a lot of potential for growth but growth will be constrained unless opportunities for competition are created, which will benefit consumers and improve the country’s competitiveness and ability to attract investment," he said.

While pointing out that Mexico is still generating low levels of growth, Castañeda said that the country is poised for higher rates of economic expansion.

By 2020, Castañeda projected, Mexico could become a "poor rich" country, with a GDP per capita of $25,000 and violence levels decreased to previous rates -- about 8 homicides per 100,000 instead of about 23 per 100,000 (though some estimates place the homicide rate lower).

"In any case, all of this is doable, though not easy," he said.

Castañeda argued that the most important question for the long term is how to distribute Mexico's wealth -- which none of the candidates seems well prepared to do, he said.

According to Horacio Nàjera, Calderón's problem was that "insecurity was stronger than the economic achievements and the concentration of money is in large cities, and failed to reach the campos where it is most needed."

For a country beleaguered by the violence of the drug war and a still-struggling economy, the fighting strategy needs to change, he said: "Seek to build a firm foundation between education and society, with jobs for the next generation so they are not tempted to go into drugs."

"No doubt from the context of drug violence, this is the most important election in Mexico's modern history. We risk going from a weak democracy to a narcodemocracy," he concluded.

The preliminary results announced hours after polls closed on Sunday are not final or legally valid. The official tally will come from Mexico's 300 election districts, which begin counting July 4.

This story has been updated to reflect a preliminary count by Mexico's electoral authorities, and the PRI's declaration of victory, early Monday morning.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Jorge Castañeda referred to Mexico's homicide rate as about 23 per 100, and projected a possible decreased homicide rate of about 8 per 100, due to a transcription error. Instead, it should be about 23 per 100,000 and about 8 per 100,000.

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  • Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), holds up his hand, revealing his election ink-stained thumb, as he speaks to the reporters, outside a polling station in Mexico City, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

  • A man casts his ballot for president at a polling station in Oaxaca, Mexico, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/ Luis Alberto Cruz)

  • Electoral workers prepare ballots at a polling station in Oaxaca, Mexico, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/ Luis Alberto Cruz)

  • Supporters of Enrique Pena Nieto, presidential candidate for the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), gather at their party's headquarters as exit poll results begin to come in for general elections in Mexico City, Mexico, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

  • Supporters of presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), wait for his arrival at the party's headquarters in Mexico City, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

  • Supporters of presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), holds newspapers with a picture of him on front page, at the party's headquarters in Mexico City, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

  • Enrique Pena Nieto, presidential candidate for the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), greets supporters at his party's headquarters in Mexico City, early Monday, July 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

  • Presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto waves to supporters at his party's headquarters in Mexico City, early Monday, July 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Christian Palma)

  • Supporters of Enrique Pena Nieto, presidential candidate for the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), gather at party headquarters as exit polls begin to come in for general elections in Mexico City, Mexico, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

  • Election workers begin the preliminary count of ballots after the polls closed for general elections in Saltillo, Mexico, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Alberto Puente)

  • In this image released by the office of the Mexican presidency, Mexico's president Felipe Calderon shows his ink-stained thumb accompanied by one of his sons after he cast his vote during general elections accompanied by his children in Mexico City, Sunday July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Mexican Presidency, Francisco Santos)

  • Josefina Vazquez Mota, presidential candidate of the ruling National Action Party (PAN), is surrounded by reporters outside a polling station, as she waves to supporters after casting her vote in the general elections, in Huixquilucan, Mexico, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Christian Palma)