Eruviel Avila, gubernatorial candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary… (Marco Ugarte / Associated…)
Reporting from Toluca and Ecatepec, Mexico — The political party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years and aspires to recapture the presidency in 2012 appeared headed for lopsided wins Sunday in key state elections that reflected public anger with the government of President Felipe Calderon.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, hoped victories would help cement its steady march back to the presidential palace, and initial results were encouraging to the party's leaders. The PRI was toppled from the nation's top office in 2000.
With 15 million people, the state of Mexico is the country's most populous. Exit polls quoted by Mexican television gave a substantial win there to PRI candidate Eruviel Avila, as was widely expected. He had more than double the votes of his nearest rival, according to these polls. Official results were trickling in through the night and initially confirmed the trends reported by the exit polls.
The PRI was also winning Coahuila, a state bordering Texas that has been devastated by drug-war violence, and Nayarit, on the Pacific Ocean, according to the exit polls. But Nayarit was still in dispute.
The governorship in Mexico state is already controlled by the PRI. Enrique Pena Nieto, the telegenic outgoing governor, is the early favorite to win the presidency next year.
Despite his advantages, Avila campaigned hard and reportedly spent millions of dollars to woo voters. For the party, it seemed the margin of victory was as important as the win itself. The PRI clearly hoped that a landslide would create an impression that it was unstoppable heading into next year's presidential election.
"Democracy wins today," Avila said as he cast his ballot on an overcast morning.
Avila's opponents, Alejandro Encinas of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and the conservative National Action Party's Luis Felipe Bravo Mena, both initially ran for the governor's office 20 years ago. They trailed in opinion surveys and were hurt by infighting in their respective political camps.
Negotiations aimed at forming alliances between the PRD and the National Action Party, or PAN, as a way to stand up to the PRI collapsed. This tactic led to major victories last year by candidates of the strange-bedfellow alliance in states such as Oaxaca and Sinaloa that have been PRI bastions.
The PAN suffers from growing discontent with the federal government over issues including a sluggish economy and rising violence from Calderon's military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels.
The PRI, however, also has to confront its own baggage. Its decades of rule, when the party controlled governments, unions and media across the nation, were marked by corruption and heavy-handedness. Its opponents warn that PRI's claims that it has reformed and modernized are bogus.
The time-honored tradition of giving away food, building materials and other incentives was practiced in full during this campaign, and no one does it better than the PRI.
"I voted for the PRI because they promised us 400 pesos a month and the other day gave out rice, beans and soap," said Maria Elena Torres, 45, a resident of Toluca, Mexico state's capital. "They know how to govern."
Jose Corona Alvarez, 50, said residents of his street were offered money to vote for the PRI. "They told us to take a photograph with our cellphones [at the voting station] as proof and we'd get 100 pesos," he said.
But another voter, Roberto Garcia Contreras, 35, said he voted for the left. "This PRI mafia is what got the country to where it is today, full of corruption and with a lot of poverty," Garcia said. "We need a change."
Heavy rain kept some voters at home. Parts of Mexico state were flooded as a result of last week's Tropical Storm Arlene. Low turnout tends to favor the PRI, analysts say.
In Ecatepec, another city in the state of Mexico where Avila served two terms as mayor, Hermelinda Hernandez, a 53-year-old teacher, said people generally supported the PRI candidate. The specter of a return of "the old PRI" didn't seem to concern her.
"The PRI had to have reformed its ways," Hernandez said outside a polling place off the city's downtown plaza. "Otherwise you wouldn't see the support for them that you see among the people."
Others who said they traditionally voted for the PRI were too busy sweeping up ruined furniture and inspecting water damage to bother voting Sunday.
"The government hasn't shown up at all," said Ignacio Ramirez, 59, a security guard.
Back in Toluca, Lorena Ramos, a 22-year-old student, said she deliberately invalidated her vote. She said the PAN and PRD candidates were "old and gray" and offered no real alternative.
And the PRI? "They buy votes, and then the people forget all their misdeeds and irritations … and that's why we never get ahead," Ramos said.
"I annulled my vote, but I'm sure the PRI will win."
News assistants Sanchez reported from Toluca and Hernandez from Ecatepec. Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.