MEXICO CITY — Mexico's opposition conservatives were heading for victory in a regional election early Monday, leaving a fragile national pact forged to broker economic reforms looking slightly stronger.
Nearly half of Mexico's 31 states held elections for a mix of local parliaments and municipal governments, but all eyes were on the race for governor in the state of Baja California, a stronghold of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).
Both the PAN and President Enrique Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) claimed victory in the state shortly after polls closed at 6 p.m. local time on Sunday, but an initial vote count showed the conservatives maintaining a consistent early lead.
With votes from over half of polling stations counted in Baja California, the PAN had a lead of over 4 percentage points over the PRI, or nearly 48 percent of the vote, preliminary results from the local electoral authority showed.
The Baja California vote is being closely watched because a defeat for the PAN was expected to rattle the 'Pact for Mexico' Pena Nieto made with opposition leaders to strengthen his hand in Congress, where the PRI has no majority.
A win for the PAN could prove more useful to Pena Nieto than a win for his own party if it helps strengthen the pact he unveiled in December.
The PAN lost control of Mexico in last year's presidential elections, and it is now the third force in Congress. But Pena Nieto needs to keep the conservatives on board to push through planned overhauls of state oil giant Pemex and the tax system.
Baja California was one of the PAN's few remaining bastions, and the first state it wrested from the PRI 24 years ago. It proved a major stepping stone to the PAN claiming the presidency in 2000 after 71 consecutive years of rule by the PRI.
During the campaign in Baja California, PAN lawmakers repeatedly accused the PRI of trying to steal the election by buying votes, and they warned that any sign of fraud could scuttle the national pact.
Both PAN chairman Gustavo Madero and his PRI counterpart said on Sunday evening that their candidate had won the governor's office, but there was no independent projection.
A few hours before the polls closed Madero was asked how he viewed the future of the Pact, and said: "the need to reach agreements is still there, it's still imperative for Mexico."
A poll late last month gave the PAN an eight-point lead over the PRI in Baja California, which borders California.
The PAN's image has been hurt by public infighting since last year's national election defeat, when voters punished the party for failing to curb violence between warring drug cartels that has claimed more than 70,000 lives since 2007.
The bloodshed has continued under Pena Nieto's rule and the campaign for the July 7 elections was marred by the murder of a number of candidates.
Jesus Zambrano, chairman of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the other main party in Pena Nieto's pact, demanded authorities clear up the killings, which have also claimed the lives of his party activists.
"In a big part of the states, organized crime is acting in favor of the PRI candidates," Zambrano said.
The PRI has persistently rejected such accusations.
Two more activists were killed over the weekend in Veracruz state, one belonging to the PRI and another to the PRD.
The Baja California election was deemed to be crucial for Madero's continuing leadership of the party. Any battle for control of the party could threaten the pact — a fact not lost on Mexicans looking to Pena Nieto to revive the economy.
"The most convenient thing would be for the PAN to win," said Pedro Feria, 32, an out-of-work lawyer who supports the PRI. "What I want is for them to focus on creating job opportunities. I've been looking for a year now."
The pact has already pushed education reforms and a shake-up of competition in the telecoms sector through Congress.
But the central planks of Pena Nieto's hopes to raise economic growth to 6 percent a year from an average of barely 2 percent since the millennium began are reforms to bolster tax revenues and open up Pemex to more private investment.
Those measures may be in doubt if the pact falls apart.
The PAN's Madero had laid the ground for a post-electoral fight, pinning accusations of vote buying, fraud and corruption against the PRI on a giant map of Mexico during the campaign.
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