- Associated Press - Monday, July 5, 2010

CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico (AP) — President Felipe Calderon’s allies headed toward some surprising victories in Mexican state elections marred by drug gang violence so severe only a trickle of citizens voted in one state where the leading gubernatorial candidate was slain.

The opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, the former longtime ruling party, had hoped for significant gains Sunday to add momentum to its bid to regain the presidency in 2012, trying to capitalize on discontent over drug violence. But it appeared the PRI would not significantly improve on the nine governorships it already held among the dozen seats up for grabs.

Despite rising public frustration over drug violence, Mr. Calderon’s allies seemed likely to come away with a much needed boost by winning in the southern state of Oaxaca after a campaign for local elections in more than a dozen states where assassinations and scandals emphasized the power of drug cartels and faced the president with his toughest political challenge.

Impoverished and volatile Oaxaca is one of several states in which Mr. Calderon’s conservative National Action Party formed alliances with leftist parties seeking to thwart a resurgence by the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years and still controls many state governments.

The showing against the PRI in Oaxaca, a heavily indigenous state where the party was in power for eight decades, was highly symbolic. A five-month uprising erupted in 2006 over allegations that outgoing Gov. Ulises Ruiz, who was not seeking re-election, stole his election victory. Critics accused Ruiz of strong-arm politics that exemplified the coercion and corruption that the PRI used to govern Mexico for seven decades.

“These are historic victories,” National Action president Cesar Nava said in an interview with the Associated Press. “Sinaloa has a fundamental significance when it comes to Mexico’s security. In Puebla and Oaxaca, the victory means a significant break with entrenched strongman politics.”

The official count had alliance candidate Gabino Cue leading with 50 percent of the votes, compared with 42 percent for PRI candidate Eviel Perez, with 17 percent of the vote counted early Monday.

Mr. Calderon’s PAN and its leftist allies led in the PRI bastion of Sinaloa, a violent northern state that is the birthplace of the powerful drug cartel of the same name.

The PRI gubernatorial candidate in Sinaloa, Jesus Vizcarra, had long faced allegations of ties to the cartel led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s most-wanted drug lord.

The newspaper Reforma recently published a photograph of Vizcarra attending a party many years ago with El Chapo’s second-in-command, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. Mr. Vizcarra, the mayor of state capital Culiacan and a distant relative of slain drug trafficker Ines Calderon, dodged questions about whether Mr. Zambada is the godfather of one of his children, saying only that he had never committed a crime.

With about a fifth of the vote counted, preliminary official results gave alliance candidate Mario Lopez 52 percent to 46 percent for Mr. Vizcarra. The Televisa exit poll had similar numbers.

Exit polls released by TV Azteca and Televisa predicted the PRI would win in at least nine states, including three that it wrested back from the PAN or the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

PRI National President Beatriz Paredes said the outcome left clear that her party dominated Mexican politics.

“Realistically, the weight of the PRI has been ratified as the primary force in the country’s politics,” Mr. Paredes told Televisa.

Exit polls indicated the PRI easily won in Tamaulipas, a drug-riven northern state where the party’s gubernatorial candidate, Rodolfo Torre, was assassinated a week before the election. Officials said only one in five registered voters cast ballots

Torre’s brother, Egidio, was picked to run in his place. He voted at an elementary school in Ciudad Victoria wearing a bulletproof vest and escorted by federal police in two trucks.

The PRI held up Torre’s assassination as evidence Calderon has failed to bring security despite the presence of tens of thousands of troops and federal police in drug trafficking hot spots.

PAN Leaders, in turn, insinuated the PRI protects drug traffickers in Tamaulipas, the birthplace of the Gulf cartel, and in Sinaloa.

Fear discouraged many people from voting in a state where extortion and abductions are rampant and armed men openly drive on highways with the acronym of the Gulf cartel stamped on their SUVs.

Voter turnout was just 20 percent, according to the state election institution — a dramatic drop from the 50 percent that voted in the last state elections in 2007.

Dozens of poll workers quit in fear over the past week. One man, an orange farmer, said his brother-in-law was kidnapped early Sunday before he was to preside over a voting station in a village outside Ciudad Victoria.

“We still don’t know if he was kidnapped because of the elections or because they will ask for money,” said the farmer, who asked not be quoted by name out of fear for his own safety. “Here the government is part of the problem.”

Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez reported this story from Ciudad Victoria and Alexandra Olson from Mexico City. AP writers Olivia Torres in Ciudad Juarez, Emilio Lopez in Hidalgo and Gabriel Alcocer in Cancun contributed to this report.