In elections marred by violence, intimidation and the growing influence of drug traffickers, Mexicans chose governors or other local officials in 14 states Sunday, a vote that appeared to be handing a sharp rebuke to President Felipe Calderon.
Exit polls and a trickle of results showed the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which dominated Mexico for 70 years until 2000, heading toward victory in many races. The strong showing is expected to bolster the PRI's 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, according to early-evening exit polls. In its traditional bastion of Oaxaca, however, partial returns indicated a rare and stunning loss for the PRI.
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.
Two candidates were killed in recent weeks in the state of Tamaulipas, including the man who almost certainly would have been elected the next governor. At least 10 other candidates and political party officials have also been killed, scores more threatened and bombs have exploded at campaign headquarters in Sinaloa and elsewhere.
The slaying on June 28 of Rodolfo Torre, the PRI's gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas, was the most graphic reminder of the degree to which drug violence hangs over Mexico. A busy drug-smuggling corridor, Tamaulipas has been the battleground in a brutal gang feud in recent months; parties couldn't field candidates in some towns because of their fear they too would be targeted.
Torre's brother Egidio, chosen to stand in for him in the election, voted Sunday wearing a black mourning ribbon pinned to his shirt sleeve — and a bulletproof vest.
In Ciudad Victoria, the Tamaulipas capital where Torre and four others were killed by gunmen as they drove to the airport, the mood Sunday was jittery. Some social-networking sites carried warnings that voters would be shot at as they left the polls, though no election day violence was reported.
"They killed our good candidate, it was a great injustice. But we are here to say Tamaulipas is strong," said Antonio Grajales, a 62-year-old voter. "We have to show that Tamaulipecos are united and that organized crime doesn't intimidate us."
Other residents stayed away, though, out of fear or mistrust.
"Why should we vote if we don't believe in the government, if the ones who rule our state, the ones in charge here, are the narcos?" said Gregorio Garcia, sitting outside his house. "Why take the risk?"
The gubernatorial campaign in the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo was rocked in May when a leftist candidate, Cancun Mayor Gregorio Sanchez, was arrested on charges of working with two violent drug-trafficking groups. Sanchez denied the charges, but was scratched from the race and forced to sit out the campaign in prison while awaiting prosecution.
PRI leaders accused the Calderon government of spying after the PAN aired recordings of telephone conversations in which the PRI governor of Veracruz, Fidel Herrera, purportedly offered his government's help to his party's candidates in violation of Mexican law.
A radio station aired purported recordings of Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz, of the PRI, coordinating campaign plans for his party's gubernatorial candidate and talking to state election officials about the distribution of ballots. The conversations raised warnings from opposition parties that the vote might be rigged.
Fraud and the use of public coffers to bankroll electoral campaigns was a time-tested tactic during the decades of PRI rule.
The Roman Catholic Church in Mexico on Sunday urged Mexicans to overcome fears and go out to vote because failure to do so "allows the law of the jungle to destroy democracy."
Times staff writer Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City and special correspondent Alicia Hernandez in Ciudad Victoria also contributed to this report.