Arturo Vazquez arrived at 7 a.m. on a sunny picture-postcard Sunday to vote at a storefront across from the Zocalo, the capital's sprawling central square.
At 9:10 he was still standing in the same spot. Behind him a line had grown nearly around the block, as people waited for poll workers who were supposed to be there at 8.
"This is just a symptom of what people have put up with under this government: bad management, corruption. They can't even be punctual," said Vazquez, an out-of-work singer and actor.
Hours after the polls closed Sunday evening, the election was still frustrating voters, who heard representatives of the two leading candidates claim victory.
"The majority of the exit polls give the advantage to our candidate," said Jesus Ortega, campaign head for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City. Ortega urged supporters to fill the Zocalo for a midnight celebration.
Minutes earlier, the head of the National Action Party said their party's exit polls showed candidate Felipe Calderon ahead.
Critic and writer Sergio Sarmiento called both statements irresponsible. "They're generating hopes that could lead to a complicated situation later," he said in a TV interview.
Around the country, many voters arrived early at the more than 130,000 polling stations to cast their ballots for continuity or change in a tight, polarizing presidential race.
Vazquez was among those expressing faith in Lopez Obrador. The candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party built an army of supporters in the capital as mayor by constructing double-decker freeways, redeveloping downtown and instituting monthly stipends for single mothers and the elderly.
Lopez Obrador, whose polling station in the south of the city also opened late, has attracted voters who have seen few benefits from the open-market policies of President Vicente Fox and his National Action Party, known as PAN.
Vazquez and other anxious voters continued to vent their frustrations even after the polling station finally opened and the line began to move.
"President Fox hasn't contributed one cent to culture in Mexico City," said Vazquez, who has children ages 6 and 11. "I'm an artist. I've been in movies and in telenovelas, and now I'm selling roasted chickens on the street."
Across town, and on the other side of the political spectrum, Juan Carlos Hernandez, 21, voted for the first time in a presidential election in Mexico City's upscale neighborhood of La Condesa. The architecture student said he wanted the country to stay on the right track and maintain the stability enjoyed under PAN.
"Whoever wins," he said shortly before 8 a.m., "the important thing is that we express our vote."
Other voters also spoke not of who would win but of Mexico's emerging democracy. Sunday's election is the first since Fox's victory ended the seven-decade rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI.
Soldiers assigned to Los Pinos, the presidential residence, waited in civilian clothes to vote on nearby Gandhi Street, some eating steaming tamales for breakfast.
"We don't have a candidate," said one 17-year veteran to the jeers of more partisan colleagues. "This is a free election."
At a polling station near the Paseo de la Reforma, the capital's grand boulevard, marketing executive Gustavo Noriega arrived early because, he said, "if we don't vote, we can't complain."
A few blocks east on La Reforma, several hundred communists, Marxists and Zapatistas staged a midday march to the Zocalo, with some toting red hammer-and-sickle flags. City police in riot gear maintained a protective line in front of the U.S. Embassy as they passed.
Although the election has been cast as a choice between the political left and right, these anti-capitalists asked Mexicans not to vote at all. Marchers left a trail of graffiti on stores, churches and historic buildings: "Democracy is dead," "Punks against the vote," and "Don't vote, smoke dope."
At an afternoon rally in the Zocalo, speakers such as Subcommander Marcos, head of the Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas, demanded the release of prisoners arrested in May during riots in San Salvador Atenco, a city on the northeastern outskirts of the capital.
No trouble was reported in the town Sunday, although authorities briefly suspended voting at two of the city's three polling stations because of late afternoon hail.
Back in the center of the capital, by 11 p.m. Lopez Obrador's supporters had taken over the Zocalo and declared their man the victor.
Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.