The Associated Press

MEXICO CITY A late surge of election results from rural areas strengthened President-elect Ernesto Zedillo's mandate on Wednesday, giving him just over 50 percent of the vote in a near-final tally.

Earlier results from Sunday's election had shown Zedillo with less than half the vote, meaning he would be forced to accommodate political rivals when he begins his six-year term on Dec. 1.

But on Wednesday, with 88.12 percent of the votes counted, Zedillo had 50.08 percent, just shy of the 50.75 percent that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari garnered in the 1988 election.

President Clinton phoned Salinas on Wednesday to congratulate him on holding peaceful elections with a high voter turnout. U.S. Ambassador James R. Jones congratulated Mexico a day earlier on elections that "advanced the cause of democracy not only in Mexico but throughout the world."

The near-complete vote count showed the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, on the verge of winning an unprecedented gamble: keeping its 65-year-old hold on power while cleaning up a fraud-ridden electoral system.

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the conservative National Action Party was second with 26.81 percent, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party was third with 17.03 percent.

Returns also showed the ruling party winning an overwhelming congressional majority, shooting down the opposition's last hopes to hold the PRI below 50 percent in Congress for the first time since the party's founding in 1929.

The Federal Electoral Institute said Wednesday that the PRI was leading in 278 of 300 congressional races and in virtually all 64 Senate races. Another 200 seats in Congress and 32 in the Senate will be divided according to vote percentages for the nine parties.

Under new election reforms, no party will be allowed the two-thirds majority needed to modify the constitution, but the PRI is likely to come just short of that.

There was no word when final results would be available. Election officials said they may be delayed because some polling centers didn't get their results to the national computer center as quickly as anticipated.

Also Wednesday, Interior Minister Jorge Carpizo said someone tried to introduce a virus into the main elections computer on election day. He called for an investigation.

The elections computer has been a sensitive issue since the computer tallying votes for the 1988 presidential election mysteriously crashed, delaying results for a week.

Opposition parties say that was engineered by the PRI-dominated government to manipulate the official results and give the victory to Salinas.

The election was the most-scrutinized in Mexican history, with 82,000 observers, including 900 foreigners. It was also carried out under reforms that put a non-partisan panel in charge of the voting and imposed stiff new penalties for fraud.

Mexican and foreign election monitors said they found a wide range of irregularities but the problems probably did not affect the outcome.

U.S. observers returning from outlying areas reported Wednesday that widespread pressure by government officials to vote for the ruling party.

"Contrary to official pronouncements that these elections presented a major advance for Mexican democracy, the electoral process was deeply flawed," the group said in statement. It included members of Grassroots International of Boston, the Washington Office on Latin America and Global Exchange of San Francisco.

Cardenas, who many believe was cheated of the presidency in 1988, has called Sunday's election "a colossal fraud" and said he plans a massive protest rally Saturday in Mexico City.

The vote took place in the shadow of a rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas, the March assassination of the PRI's first presidential candidate and calls for greater democracy.

Sunday's election was largely peaceful, but tensions remained high in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the southern state of Chiapas, where Indian guerrillas staged a rebellion earlier this year. On Tuesday, riot police surrounded the San Cristobal City Hall to prevent a clash between two sides claiming victory in the governor's race.

The official vote count late Tuesday suggested the ruling party candidate, Sen. Eduardo Robledo Rincon, would win the governor's race. But backers of Amado Avendano, a newspaper publisher who had allied his campaign with rebel demands for democracy, alleged fraud.

The Chiapas State Electoral Commission said that with 77 percent of precincts counted, Robledo had 52.1 percent of the ballot and Avendano had 34.4 percent. Read Next Article