The defeat of the gubernatorial candidate handpicked by leftist politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to run in his home state of Tabasco has dealt a serious blow to Lopez Obrador's emerging opposition movement.
After spending a month stumping for candidates, Lopez Obrador, who lost the recent Mexican presidential election by less than a percentage point, saw his Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, trounced in Sunday's election.
Gubernatorial candidate Cesar Raul Ojeda was beaten by 10 percentage points, according to preliminary results, and the PRD gave up five of its 11 mayoral offices.
Just as with the presidential election, Ojeda and the PRD are expected to file legal challenges to Sunday's results.
Lopez Obrador had campaigned with Ojeda, promising that an Ojeda victory would also be a victory for Lopez Obrador and his campaign to raise up Mexico's poor.
Lopez Obrador supporters warned against putting too much stock in the Tabasco results because Ojeda had lost two previous races for governor.
Ojeda won about 43% of Sunday's vote against Andres Granier of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Granier, a biochemist by training and a popular former mayor of the state capital, said voters could expect only trouble from Lopez Obrador and his movement.
Lopez Obrador broke into national politics after losing a controversial 1994 Tabasco governor's race, and Sunday's election appears to be another turning point. But rather than a career springboard, this one appeared closer to a bookend.
After gaining notoriety for his protests against cheating in the 1994 race, Lopez Obrador made his greatest political advances during the late 1990s with a string of election victories while serving as the PRD's national president. In 2000, he was elected mayor of Mexico City before stepping down last year to run for president of Mexico.
Mexico City Mayor Alejandro Encinas, a close ally of Lopez Obrador, said Monday that the party needed to reexamine its electoral strategy.
The idea that Tabasco's gubernatorial election would be a referendum on Lopez Obrador took root early among political analysts and newspaper columnists. For one thing, it came only weeks after the electoral court dismissed PRD allegations that President-elect Felipe Calderon won by fraud.
Lopez Obrador himself took the message center stage.
"They robbed us of our victory, but your support will not be in vain," he said during a campaign appearance last week. "The movement continues ... if it fractures, there will be no more hope for millions of Mexicans."
Ojeda had joined Lopez Obrador's postelection protests this summer, and he had also denounced Calderon's victory. Granier, on the other hand, said he could work with Calderon of the National Action Party.
Lopez Obrador and Ojeda had hoped to boost voter turnout in Tabasco with their joint appearances. Instead, turnout fell 8 percentage points from the July 2 presidential election, in which 56% of Tabasco voters cast ballots for Lopez Obrador.
Ojeda alleges that Granier received illegal state government help and tried to buy votes with money and giveaways. Ojeda won a similar challenge in the 2000 election, and an elections tribunal ordered a new election in 2001, which he also lost.
Ojeda had worked on the Lopez Obrador presidential campaign, which was built on the idea that Mexico's decade-long embrace of the free market had paid off for the wealthy and well-educated, but left half the country in poverty and lousy jobs.
While still polling strongly among the poor and working-class, Lopez Obrador began to bleed support from left-leaning middle- and upper-class voters when his postelection protests closed capital streets and disrupted thousands of businesses over the summer.
Lingering civil unrest in Oaxaca by striking teachers and their leftist supporters may also have frightened some people who generally agree with Lopez Obrador, according to interviews with voters last week in Tabasco.
Ojeda's victory would have avenged Lopez Obrador's 1994 gubernatorial loss to Roberto Madrazo, whose PRI campaign illegally overspent millions of dollars, according to evidence later delivered to Lopez Obrador and federal authorities.
Instead, Sunday's election was an embarrassing defeat that could not come at a worse time for Lopez Obrador. He's planning an event in the capital next month to install himself as the country's "legitimate" president. Rather than a crowning moment for his movement, the ceremony now risks ridicule.
"He can still fill a plaza, but with increasingly desperate companions," said Benito Nacif, a political analyst at Mexico's Center for Economic Research.
Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.