TOLUCA, Mexico —- Mexico's main opposition party swept to victory in a key state election on Sunday, strengthening its bid to retake the presidency and handing a major defeat to President Felipe Calderon's conservatives.
Exit polls showed the PRI increased its share of the vote in the State of Mexico, the country's most populous, while Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) had its worst night in a generation in the region that rings the nation's capital.
Initial results suggested the PRI also strengthened its grip on two other states, adding luster to a successful day for the PRI's main presidential hopeful, Enrique Pena Nieto.
"This is an important victory for the PRI and for Pena Nieto," said Eurasia Group analyst Carlos Ramirez.
"The margin is more than everyone expected, but the federal elections will move in a different direction. One shouldn't jump to the conclusion it will be the PRI at the end," he said.
Winning PRI candidate Eruviel Avila, a popular ex-mayor of the State of Mexico's largest municipality Ecatepec, was backed by outgoing governor Pena Nieto, current favorite to reclaim the presidency for the PRI in the July 2012 election.
With nearly 50 percent of votes counted, official estimates put the PRI at some 61.6 percent in the State of Mexico, which would be its best showing there since 1993.
"This is a historic win in the State of Mexico," announced PRI national chairman Humberto Moreira, who said the PRI had also successfully defended its governorships in the northern state of Coahuila state and the western state of Nayarit.
Initial exit polls showed the PRI had also increased its share of the vote in the two smaller states. However, one media report said the PAN was claiming victory in Nayarit.
The PRI ruled Mexico for more than 70 years until it was ousted by the PAN in 2000. Although its control of Mexico was dogged by allegations of corruption and vote-rigging, analysts say the PRI has a strong chance of returning to power in 2012.
"A return of the PRI to the presidency would be a good thing. We are living a very difficult economic and security situation, which we didn't see when the PRI was in
charge," said laborer Carlos Jimenez in Toluca.
Battered by discontent over Calderon's army-led war on drug cartels that has claimed 40,000 lives in 4 1/2 years, the PAN slipped to third place in the State of Mexico, claiming just 12.7 percent of the vote, the early counts showed.
This would be nearly half the electoral support it secured in 2005, and its worst performance there since 1987.
The centrist PRI has never lost an election in the state that is home to over 15 million people, where Pena Nieto was elected with just under 48 percent of the vote in 2005.
WORRIES OVER VIOLENCE
The PRI is hoping the telegenic Pena Nieto, 44, will be a fresh face for the party during the 2012 presidential race, and latest polls give him a clear lead over his rivals.
"If Eruviel wins that will give a little boost to Pena Nieto," said Maria de los Angeles Rios, a 28-year-old voter.
Polls suggested Alejandro Encinas of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) was second the State of Mexico with 21.7 percent, a slight dip on the 2005 PRD tally.
The other two states voting, Coahuila and Nayarit are among those to have seen a big rise in drug killings in the past year. The violence has hurt Calderon, who staked his reputation on defeating the cartels after taking office in late 2006.
"The violence is always getting closer, you see it touching your family, your neighbors," said Israel Segura, 33, a vendor casting his vote in Ecatepec.
On the eve of the election, five dismembered bodies were found and two people died in a violent shootout in the State of Mexico, local media reported.
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