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Mexican president's allies lead in key elections

President Felipe Calderon's allies held back a resurgence by Mexico's old ruling party, according to results Monday from state elections marred by drug gang violence.
Image: Mexican elections
People count votes during elections in Ciudad Victoria in Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on Sunday. Eduardo Verdugo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Felipe Calderon's allies held back a resurgence by Mexico's old ruling party, according to results Monday from state elections marred by drug gang violence so severe a large majority of citizens stayed home in two of the most dangerous border states.

Desperate alliances between Calderon's conservative party and Mexico's leftists seized three stronghold states from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had run them for more than 80 years.

The party known as the PRI still won nine of the governorships in Sunday's election, showing it remains Mexico's most important force a dozen years after losing national power, and it seemed to remain on track to recapture the presidency in 2012.

Still, the outcome represented no clear gain: the PRI already controlled nine of the states going in.

Calderon's National Action Party, meanwhile, was hurt by a weak economy and revulsion at a wave of drug violence. It won not a single state on its own, and preliminary counts showed it lost the only two of the 12 that it had governed on its own.

Despite Calderon's pleas for Mexicans to vote, the elections displayed the intimidating power of drug cartels: only a third of voters showed up in the country's most violent state, Chihuahua. Drug gangs hung four bodies from bridges in the state capital on election day. Less than 40 percent voted in Tamaulipas, where gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre was killed five days earlier.

Calderon's party and the main leftist party won only where they formed alliances against the PRI — in Sinaloa, Puebla and Oaxaca. In all of those states, they won only by borrowing popular candidates from other parties.

The PRI's defeat 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 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.

Gabino Cue, a member of the small Convergence Party who lost the earlier race to Ruiz, won with 50 percent of the vote, compared to 41 percent for PRI candidate Eviel Perez, with 86 percent of the vote counted early Monday.

In Sinaloa and Puebla, National Action united with the left to back candidates who recently bolted from the PRI.

"These are historic victories," National Action president Cesar Nava said in an interview with The Associated Press. "In Puebla and Oaxaca, the victory means a significant break with entrenched strongman politics."

Calderon's party and its leftist allies wrested 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, 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. Vizcarra, the mayor of state capital Culiacan and a distant relative of slain drug trafficker Ines Calderon, dodged questions about whether Zambada is the godfather of one of his children, saying only that he had never committed a crime.

With nearly 90 percent of the vote counted, alliance candidate Mario Lopez had 52 percent of the vote, compared to 46 percent for Vizcarra.

"Sinaloa has a fundamental significance when it comes to Mexico's security," Nava said.

But it was unclear whether the outcome in Sinaloa was truly a break from the past. Lopez, a wealthy businessmen and former local baseball club president, only left the PRI after an internal party dispute, and he is dogged by scandals from his own past. When he was mayor of the town of Ahome, one of his underlings was investigated for allegedly protecting drug dealers.

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," Paredes told Televisa.

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 38 percent of registered voters cast ballots, a drop from the 50 percent that voted in the last state elections.

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.

National Action 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.

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."