Ex-ruling party wins violence-scarred Mexican race

Ex-ruling party wins violence-scarred Mexican race
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Monday, November 14, 2011 - 6:43pm

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- The party that held a lock on power in Mexico for seven decades appears to have won a key state election before the country's presidential race by becoming the party of change.

Monday's official vote count shows that the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or the PRI, surged to victory by winning hundreds of thousands of votes back from the leftist party that pushed it out of the governorship 10 years ago in a pattern that, according to polls, may be developing across the country.

The PRI's Fausto Vallejo Figueroa won a 35- to 33-percent victory over his closest competitor, Luisa Maria Calderon, who is the sister of President Felipe Calderon. Finishing a distant third with 29 percent was the party that has dominated the state in recent years, the Democratic Revolution Party, or the PRD.

The two parties that lost the vote immediately questioned the results and accused the PRI of aligning itself with organized crime to intimidate voters.

But with local turnout higher than that seen in the last presidential election, there was more evidence that angry voters rather than armed men or threatening messages were behind the PRI's win.

"It was a referendum on the PRD during the last 10 to 12 years. Violence has increased and economic issues that have led to migration have not changed," Shannon O'Neil, an expert on Mexican politics at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The PRI itself was long the giant of Mexican politics, a system more than a party imposed by a Mexican president in 1929 to impose his power at every level of authority throughout the nation. For the next 71 years, the PRI literally beat off some challengers while buying off voters with benefits that often depended on support for the party.

But the PRI lost the presidency to Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, in 2000 and Michoacan fell to the Democratic Revolution Party a year later. The PRI can now blame growing drug violence and a tepid economy on the very parties that once argued the PRI was the source of Mexico's ills.

"We haven't forgotten that we were better off when the PRI was governing than the 10 terrible years we suffered under the PRD, and the 12 years under the PAN that hasn't been good for anything," said businessman Juan Jose Magana Torres, of Morelia in Michoacan.

"We're sick of the PRD," said homemaker Josefina Gonzalez Nieto, also of Morelia.

Polls show the PRI making a comeback across the nation, with its top candidate, former Mexico State Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, leading in all polls ahead of the July presidential vote.

Part of the PRI's strong showing is due to weariness with the PAN after 12 years, and horror at the estimated 40,000 drug war deaths that have stained the country since Calderon ramped up the fight against cartels by sending troops into Michoacan, his home state.

At the same time, PRD, which came within 1 percentage point of beating Calderon for the presidency in 2006, has fallen apart even in its strongest states, such as Michoacan. Sunday's election showed that voters disgruntled with the PRD are voting for the PRI.

The trend is appearing in other PRD strongholds. Recent polls show that the PRI even has a chance to win back the mayorship of Mexico City that it lost to the PRD by a 6-1 margin six years ago.

In Michoacan, Calderon's PAN actually did far better than it usually did in the past. Despite weariness with the drug war, Luisa Maria Calderon got just about the same total of votes her brother did six years earlier from presidential voters in his home state.

The swing came from the PRD to the PRI, which jumped from 19 percent in the 2006 presidential race to 35 percent on Sunday, while the leftist party plummeted.

Even so, the results are not final until later in the week and the Democratic Revolution Party vows to challenge them in electoral courts, accusing both the PRI and PAN of irregularities.

"On the one hand was the illegal use of federal resources and money, and on the other this new PRI, now protected and supported in its return to power with the help of organized crime," said the PRD's national president, Jesus Zambrano, at a news conference.

Luisa Maria Calderon, too, implied that the drug gangs threatening her party's voters and poll watchers on the behalf of the PRI in retaliation for its aggressive stance against cartels. She said her team would carefully review vote tallies in parts of the state where they have received reports of armed men threatening people trying to vote.

"Allowing organized crime to manipulate elections will never lead to security," she said in an interview with the Televisa network.

Concern over cartel involvement grew as the election neared in a state that is a major producer of marijuana, opium and methamphetamines.

The government is battling quasi-religious drug gangs called La Familia and the Knights Templar that claim to be following divine will and protecting the rights of Michoacan residents as well as growing into the country's biggest producer of methamphetamine.

In some regions, residents have taken to the streets, or have been forced or paid by drug gangs, to protest government crackdowns.

The PAN mayor of the city of La Piedad was gunned down as he handed out campaign literature for Calderon and other candidates less than two weeks before Sunday's election. On the day of the vote, a newspaper in the city published an unsigned note threatening PAN supporters and blaming the party for deaths in the wake of its military-led offensive against drug cartels.

"Don't wear T-shirts or PAN advertising because we don't want to confuse you and have innocent people die," read the note, which was also circulated by email. News reports said the newspaper had been forced to publish the warning.

Yet the city's voters shook off the threat. The PAN candidate received 53 percent of the vote.

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