(Reuters) – Mexico’s ruling and main opposition parties wrested ground from each other in elections for governors in a dozen states on Sunday, setting the stage for a tough battle for the presidency in 2012.
Initial results showed President Felipe Calderon’s National Action Party, known as PAN, with surprise gubernatorial wins in three states controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had been pegged to sweep the vote.
The PRI beat out rival parties and held onto governorships in the remaining nine states, building a base to launch a likely presidential bid by the party’s rising star, State of Mexico Governor Enrique Pena Nieto.
“This election proves the PRI is the leading political force in the country,” the party’s president, Beatriz Paredes, told a news conference.
Mexico’s divided left joined forces with Calderon’s conservatives in awkward alliances to win in PRI strongholds Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa. The PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years as a semi-dictatorship, has been in the opposition for a decade after losing to the PAN in 2000.
Elections also were held for mayors and local deputies in nearly half of Mexico’s 31 states on Sunday.
Analysts say local issues determining state votes may not translate to a national win for either party in 2012 but the PRI hopes to capitalize on Calderon’s sinking popularity as the economy sputters and drug violence spins out of control.
Staining Calderon’s legacy, more than 26,000 people have been killed during his time in office, mostly traffickers and police but also civilian bystanders.
“I voted for the PRI because Calderon got us into this war where innocent people are paying the price,” said Jorge Lopez, 46, an unemployed builder in a shantytown full of drug dens and brothels in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez.
Tit-for-tat murders to control smuggling routes have turned Ciudad Juarez into one of the world’s most violent cities.
Campaigning was blighted by drug gang intimidation as suspected cartel hitmen murdered two candidates.
It was some of the most blatant evidence of traffickers interfering in politics since Calderon came to power in late 2006 and launched a army-lead drug crackdown that has ended up fueling more violence as cartels splinter and feud over turf.
Investors sold off Mexico’s peso at the start of the week after Rodolfo Torre, the PRI front-runner for governor in the border state of Tamaulipas, and four aides were killed in an ambush by drug hitmen, Mexico’s highest-profile political murder in 16 years.
Egidio Torre replaced his dead brother as candidate and won after casting his own vote under heavy guard.
A mayoral candidate in Tamaulipas, where the Gulf cartel is battling a gang of former enforcers called the Zetas, was also murdered in a likely drug hit aimed at swaying the vote.
Election day was not free of drug violence. In several states there were reports of irregularities and vote-buying. Long lines formed at polling stations in Tamaulipas after some 40 percent of election volunteers quit fearing attacks.
In Chihuahua state there were at least 19 drug murders on Sunday, including the brother of a PAN mayoral candidate in the isolated town of Batopilas, police said. Four bodies were hung from bridges in Chihuahua’s capital.
Along the U.S-Mexico border cartels rule over semi-lawless swaths of territory employing networks of lookouts, from taxi drivers to taco-stand owners. Journalists there increasingly face threats and business owners pay regular extortion fees.
In many areas, the situation is deteriorating despite more than a $1 billion in anti-drug aid from the United States.
As well as being angry at Calderon, some voters blamed local PRI politicians for not doing more to stop the violence.
“The insecurity we are living in here is because of bad PRI governments. I can’t say anything more because it might cost me my life,” said a 55-year-old businessman in Reynosa, a major manufacturing city in Tamaulipas across from McAllen, Texas.
Mexico grapples with endemic corruption within state-level politics and a number of candidates have been accused by rivals of being on drug cartel payrolls.
Mexican media have reported that the sitting PRI governor of Tamaulipas has a bodyguard wanted by the United States on drug charges, while the left-wing mayor of the resort of Cancun is in jail awaiting trial on charges of laundering drug money.
The PRI’s Hector Murguia was elected mayor of Ciudad Juarez, early results showed, despite accusations from rivals and rights groups that he works for the feared Juarez cartel. This week a severed head was dumped outside his house.
(Additional reporting by Julian Cardona in Ciudad Juarez and Robin Emmott in Monterrey; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Bill Trott)