ECATEPEC, Mexico (AP) — Voters in Mexico’s most populous state cast ballots Sunday that could hand the ruling party a much-needed boost ahead of next year’s presidential elections or a potentially devastating blow by throwing off its uninterrupted 88-year local rule.
Voting centers closed in the evening amid dueling accusations of vote buying, complaints that some voters received intimidating telephone calls warning them not to cast ballots and reports of bloody pig heads being left outside opposition party offices.
Polls gave the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party of President Enrique Pena Nieto a slight edge in the closing days of the Mexico State campaign, but the result would largely depend on which party got its backers to vote and the possibility of party switching by voters whose priority was preventing a PRI victory.
Some, like shopkeeper Ruben Sanchez Mendoza, 47, were fed up with almost 90 years of uninterrupted rule in the state by the PRI. Sanchez Mendoza said he voted for Delfina Gomez, the candidate of the leftist Morena party.
“We are tired of so much corruption, corrupt politicians, corrupt police,” Sanchez Mendoza said. “The truth is, without a change, I don’t see a future for ourselves or our children.”
At a polling station nearby, 65-year-old retiree Maria Concepcion Sanchez Morales said she was voting for the PRI despite claims by Morena that the ruling party gave away “rotten beans” to buy votes.
“They say they give out rotten beans, but at least they give out beans,” said Sanchez Morales. “Let’s not lie: All the benefit programs come from the PRI.”
Both residents of the sprawling suburb of Ecatepec agreed that crime such as widespread robberies in the street and aboard public buses was the most pressing issue.
“They rob, they steal, at any time of the day or night,” Sanchez Morales complained.
Near the polling stations, neighbors had strung a banner across one street reading: “Thief, if we catch you, we’re not going to turn you over to police. We will lynch you.”
A loss for the state’s PRI candidate Alfredo Del Mazo would be a “huge hit,” said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching. “It would lose one of the most important bastions in terms of image, in terms of enthusiasm among PRIists.”
The only certainty is that if the PRI wins there will be allegations of fraud, he said.
The federal electoral prosecutor’s office said it had received a sharp increase in complaints of alleged irregularities, and residents of the state reported parties offering them packages of staple goods. Local newspapers published photos of money cards bearing the PRI insignia allegedly being handed out to potential voters.
The party, which dominated all of Mexico for most of the 20th century, has been struggling with low approval ratings under Pena Nieto, putting its hold on national power at risk in next year’s presidential race.
A state victory for the PRI’s closest competitor, schoolteacher-turned-politician Gomez of Morena, would boost party leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s chances as he prepares to make a third run for the presidency in 2018.
With polls saying about two-thirds of voters backed parties other than the PRI, divisions in that anti-PRI vote could be the ruling party’s best shot at retaining power in Mexico State, and perhaps nationally. No Mexican president has gotten more than half the vote in an election in nearly two decades.
An official with the Mexico state prosecutor’s office confirmed it was investigating the disappearance of a local Morena leader. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and insisted on speaking anonymously.
Voters in the states of Coahuila and Nayarit were also choosing new governors Sunday, but Mexico State is the country’s biggest electoral prize. With 11 million voters and substantial industry and influence in the sprawl around Mexico City, it can be key to a presidential campaign, giving the victor resources and a wealth of patronage jobs for backers.
Pena Nieto himself was its governor, as were the father and grandfather of Del Mazo, who is himself a distant cousin of the president — a fact often trumpeted by opponents hoping to capitalize on Pena Nieto’s low popularity, which is dipping near single digits nationally.
The PRI held the presidency from 1929 until 2000, and Pena Nieto recaptured the top office in 2012. While it remains the only truly national party in Mexico, PRI lost governorships last year in four states where it had never lost before. And it faced problems in Mexico State that the PRI was hard pressed to blame on anyone else.
Nearly everyone has a story about being robbed on the buses that shuttle people to and from work in the capital. Its sprawling Mexico City suburbs — some of them chaotic cities of 1 million or more in their own right — are plagued by violence, especially against women. Just this week, authorities in Chalco found the burned bodies of a woman and two children in a grassy lot.
For Francisca Anaya, a 52-year-old unemployed project manager from Ecatepec, getting a handle on crime is the top priority.
“We need new people, people really committed to citizens, who really apply the law, who give justice to the missing and murdered women in Ecatepec,” Anaya said. “The women of Ecatepec right now are defenseless. There is no one to protect us. At any moment they can kidnap, rape, disappear us.”
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson reported from Ecatepec and AP writer Maria Verza reported in Mexico City. AP writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.