Reporting from Mexico City — In elections marred by violence, intimidation and the growing influence of drug traffickers, Mexicans chose governors or other local officials in 14 states Sunday. Preliminary results Monday showed the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) winning most governorships but failing to alter its overall hold on power.
President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party, in alliance with leftist parties, stunned the PRI by winning in two of its historic bastions, Oaxaca and Puebla, according to preliminary results.
The PRI, which dominated Mexico for 70 years until 2000, had hoped a strong showing would bolster its campaign to retake the presidency when Calderon's term ends in two years.
The PRI was holding on to several states it has long governed plus gaining new ones. In Sinaloa, another PRI stronghold, the vote was too close to call, with the candidate representing a PAN-led coalition taking a small lead in partial returns.
Far beyond the results themselves, Sunday's elections in nearly half the nation were a test of whether drug cartels have been able to so frighten voters that the very democratic process is threatened. Four of the states picking governors Sunday — Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango and Tamaulipas — are among the country's deadliest.
A number of polling stations did not open and scores of election workers, mainly in Tamaulipas, were afraid to show up. Some candidates cast ballots in body armor with guards in tow, and army patrols with heavy firepower were deployed in several states to protect voters.
In the violent border state of Chihuahua, four bodies were found hung Sunday morning from different bridges, an ominous, but increasingly common, message from drug traffickers. One was identified as a prison warden.
"We are very concerned about the violence and especially whether it stops people from going out to vote," Sen. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, a power broker within the PRI, told The Times.
Turnout varied state to state — low in some municipalities but with long lines reported elsewhere. Because these were regional races, a nationwide voting percentage figure was not immediately available.
The elections were also a referendum on the Calderon government, mired in a nearly 4-year-old war against drug cartels in which more than 23,000 people have been killed. A sluggish economy has also cost Calderon and his National Action Party, or PAN, considerable support.
"The PRI wants to leave Calderon exposed as a president who is mistaken, inept and obstinate," commentator Pascal Beltran del Rio noted in Sunday's Excelsior newspaper.
With that in mind, the resurgent PRI, which dominated midterm elections last year, went into Sunday's balloting widely favored to win in most of the 12 states choosing governors. Nine of those states were already held by the PRI, which once ran Mexico from top to bottom but lost the presidency in 2000.
In an unorthodox effort to break the PRI's hold, the rightist PAN joined hands with leftist parties in half a dozen states including Oaxaca and Sinaloa. These were uneasy alliances; many members of the main leftist party, the Democratic Revolution Party, don't even recognize Calderon as the legitimate president of Mexico because he only narrowly defeated their candidate in 2006 elections.
If the gambit succeeds, it might provide a formula for next year's race in Mexico state, where a PRI loss would probably put a dent in the presidential hopes of the current governor, Enrique Pena Nieto.
But if it fails, Calderon may end up more isolated and weaker than ever, analysts say. The strategy appeared to have worked in the southern state of Oaxaca, where Gabino Cue of the PAN-led alliance was reported to be in the lead, according to partial results.
"The people voted to leave behind 80 years of history of bad government," PAN President Cesar Nava said in claiming victory. Nava also claimed victory in Puebla, another PRI stronghold.
In every state where the PAN ran alone, however, exit polls showed the PRI winning. And the PRI did not concede defeat in Oaxaca or Puebla.
In addition to the odd-bedfellows alliances, the campaign leading up to Sunday's vote was marked by assassinations, allegations of drug-trafficking and dirty tricks.
Several leading candidates were dogged by accusations that they were linked personally and professionally to drug traffickers. Jesus Vizcarra of the PRI claimed victory in the Sinaloa governor's race Sunday evening but as votes were counted through the night, he fell behind his opponent in an apparent upset; in Ciudad Juarez, Hector Murguia of the PRI was ahead in preelection opinion polls but no results were immediately available Sunday night.