Reporting from Acapulco, Mexico — A bouncy Madonna tune thumps from loudspeakers on a campaign truck, an incongruous anthem for a political race draped in tension.
Rattled by drug-related killings, voters in the coastal state of Guerrero will pick a new governor Sunday after a campaign marked by accusations of attempted vote buying and partisan-based violence.
The balloting in Guerrero, which except for the Acapulco resort is an impoverished rural state, kicks off elections in six states across Mexico this year that will set the tone for the 2012 presidential campaign.
The once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, hopes to recapture Guerrero as part of a comeback bid that has built momentum with a number of electoral successes in the last three years.
The PRI aims to retake the presidency 12 years after the historic election that ended its seven-decade reign. This year's votes in Guerrero and elsewhere will serve as a gauge of whether the PRI can be defeated.
"The PRI is the rival to beat," said Jorge Buendia, a Mexico City-based pollster and analyst. "All this is taking place under the shadow of the presidential race, the elephant in the room."
Guerrero, with 2.4 million voters and a history of political turbulence, is one of three Mexican states now held by the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, that are in play this year. The party has been plagued by internal strife since narrowly losing the presidential race in 2006. Another PRD-led state, Baja California Sur, will hold an election Feb. 6. The third, Michoacan, votes in November.
In Guerrero, polls show a competitive race between PRI candidate Manuel Anorve, who resigned as Acapulco's mayor to run, and a former political ally, Sen. Angel Aguirre, a longtime PRI stalwart who scrambled party lines when he bolted to lead the PRD coalition. In its zeal to defeat the PRI, the National Action Party, or PAN, of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, which has trailed badly, opted this week to throw its support to Aguirre.
Emotions in Guerrero have run high. On Jan. 12, a PRD official was severely injured in a beating for which his party blamed the PRI, charges that PRI leaders denied.
Later, PRD officials and allies claimed to have uncovered a PRI effort to buy votes after finding a cache of food boxes bearing the logo of a social service agency from the state of Mexico. They called for an investigation of Mexico state Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI, who happens to lead early presidential polls.
But welfare officials in Mexico state said the markings on the boxes were fake and that the contents didn't match the food packets they normally distribute. During the PRI's 71-year rule, it often doled out food, construction materials and other forms of aid to build support during the election campaigns.
For its part, the PRI cried foul after Mexican news media published contents of a telephone conversation that appeared to detail plans by a PRD senator from another state to ship goods to help Aguirre.
This week, after a PRI member was fatally shot in Atoyac de Alvarez, about 40 miles northwest of Acapulco, state party officials held Aguirre responsible, saying he had fanned the passions of followers.
Adding to the volatile mix, turf fights among drug traffickers in Guerrero have left a trail of bodies in recent months and more than 2,000 people dead during the last two years.
This month at least 30 people were slain in Acapulco in a single weekend, 15 of them found beheaded. The slayings have brought army patrols and stoked fear of damage to tourism in the famed beach resort, an economic engine for the state. But the drug war has not been a dominant topic in the campaign.
Anorve and Aguirre were allies in the PRI for many years. The PRD turned to Aguirre after its most likely candidate for governor, state lawmaker Armando Chavarria, was fatally shot in August 2009. The killing has not been solved.
Five other states elect governors this year, an election season that will segue into the 2012 presidential campaign. All eyes will be on the state of Mexico, which votes in July. PAN and PRD officials had talked of forming an anti-PRI alliance there in an attempt to crimp Pena Nieto's presidential hopes, but recent statements by likely candidates have dimmed prospects of a possible partnership.
In the 2012 presidential race, PAN has no obvious candidate. Calderon is barred by Mexican law from seeking reelection.
The PRD's internal squabbling could knock it out of contention in the presidential race. Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard plans to run, but his toughest foe could be fellow leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who lost in 2006 and has not detailed his plans for next year.