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PRI holds preliminary lead in Mexico State vote

Alfredo Del Mazo, Mexico state gubernatorial candidate for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and his wife Fernanda Castillo greet supporters at the party's headquarters in Toluca, capital of Mexico state, Sunday, June 4, 2017. Preliminary results indicated del Mazo was likely to win between 32.75 percent and 33.59 percent of the ballots in the State of Mexico, compared with 30.73 percent to 31.53 percent for his closest rival, Delfina Gomez of the leftist Morena party. Pedro Zamudio, president of the state's Electoral Institute, cautioned that it the outcome would not be final until all the ballots were counted.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The ruling party's candidate held a slight advantage in preliminary vote counts in the race for governor of Mexico's most populous state, an election seen as a key test ahead of next year's presidential election.

With about 97 percent of votes counted, Alfredo del Mazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had won 33.7 percent of the votes in Mexico State, compared with 30.8 percent for his closest rival, Delfina Gomez of the leftist Morena party. Mexico State surrounds Mexico City, and includes many of its suburbs and outlying slums.

The results of the election will not be official until all the ballots are counted, which is expected by Wednesday.

A PRI victory would hand the party a lifeline, after President Enrique Pena Nieto's approval ratings dipped to near single digits and a parade of former PRI governors were jailed for corruption. Many believed the party would have been essentially knocked out of the 2018 presidential race if it failed to hold on to its last big bastion, Pena Nieto's home state and one it has governed without interruption for 88 years.

But if Del Mazo wins, he will face a state where two-thirds of voters opposed him.

Political analyst Raymundo Riva Palacio said such a narrow, "pyrrhic" PRI victory in the state of Mexico could spell trouble for the party next year. Considering the power of the PRI's political machine in the state and the fact that Gomez was practically unknown eight months ago, the result so far signals "an enormous discontent with the PRI" and portends a "very bad scenario" for the party and the president, he argued.

"I don't have the slightest doubt that today there was a qualitative change in the electorate," Riva Palacio said.

The other two main parties, the leftist Democratic Revolution and the conservative National Action, were behind in the state by significant margins.

But the Mexico State elections will also be a test for Gomez, the hand-picked candidate of Morena party leader and 2018 presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. If Gomez' campaign holds protests in Mexico State, it could stir up memories of Lopez Obrador's unpopular decision to block streets In Mexico City for months in 2006 to protest perceived vote fraud in his narrow loss in the presidential race.

On Monday, the Morena party leader in Mexico State suggested that Gomez' campaign may demand a recount. "We are in the right," Lopez Obrador said in brief televised remarks. "Delfina won, and we are going to prove it. We will not accept any electoral fraud. ... Mexico needs democracy."

Both Del Mazo and Gomez have proclaimed victory, something that happens commonly in Mexico.

Voters in the states of Coahuila and Nayarit were also choosing new governors Sunday. In the small Pacific coast state of Nayarit, a coalition between National Action and the Democratic Revolution parties appeared to have wrested the governorship from the PRI. In the northern border state of Coahuila, the scandal-wracked PRI had a 1.5-percent lead over National Action, but 15 percent of the votes there still have to be counted.

The PRI, which has dominated political life in Mexico since 1929, now faces the prospect of heading into presidential elections while controlling fewer than half of the nation's governorships.

Mexico State was the day's biggest electoral prize, with 11 million voters and substantial industry and influence in the area ringing the nation's capital. Control of the state can be key to a presidential campaign, giving the victorious party resources and a wealth of patronage jobs for backers.

Pena Nieto himself was governor of Mexico State before becoming president. So 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.

Sunday's election was marred by 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.

"We are tired of so much corruption, corrupt politicians, corrupt police," said Ruben Sanchez Mendoza, a 47-year-old shopkeeper in the sprawling Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec who backed Gomez. "The truth is, without a change, I don't see a future for ourselves or our children."

But 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," she said. "Let's not lie: All the benefit programs come from the PRI."

Both agreed that crime, such as widespread robberies in the street and aboard public buses, was the most pressing issue. The state's 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.

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Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson in Ecatepec, Mexico, contributed to this report.

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