MEXICO CITY (AP) — The election for governor of the key Mexican border state of Baja California Sunday appeared to be locked in a tight race, with both sides claiming victory.
Preliminary results with just 3 percent of the vote counted showed Francisco "Kiko" Vega of the conservative National Action Party with about a 4-percentage point lead, suggesting his coalition might be able to hold onto the governorship his party first won 24 years ago, the first recognized opposition victory in Mexico's recent history.
Vega, who is running in a coalition with the Democratic Revolution Party, claimed victory, saying "as governor, I will do what the people want."
However, also claiming victory was the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which regained Mexico's presidency in 2012 after 12 years out of power. The party, known as the PRI, held the presidency from 1929 to 2000 and was seeking to capitalize on the momentum of its 2012 return to get candidate Fernando Castro Trenti elected in Baja California.
The specter of a National Action defeat had raised doubts about the fate of a national united front, known as the Pact for Mexico, in which all of Mexico's major parties have managed to cooperate to pass important reform bills.
Elections were also held Sunday for state legislators and mayorships in 13 other states. The campaigns have raised fears that violence may be becoming endemic in local Mexican politics.
National Action — which has governed Baja California since 1989 — said a series of dirty tricks in that and other state races marked a return to old practices.
Party leader Gustavo Madero suggested he couldn't sit down to negotiate, as he has to date, with the PRI and President Enrique Pena Nieto to enact key national reforms in public education and telecom laws, but still faces hurdles in energy and tax reform.
Election day got off to a rough start for Madero. National Action said he went to his assigned precinct in the northern state of Chihuahua to vote, only to find the gate locked. Madero said the PRI can't act like a modern, reformist force on the national level, while recurring to old-style strong-arm tactics during elections.
"We are seeing two realities. The Pact for Mexico is very civilized, very advanced policy, but on the other hand, when there are elections, it's back to acting like the 1970s or 80s," Madero said, referring to an era when the PRI ruled through vote fraud and handouts.
PRI party leader Cesar Camacho brushed off criticisms, saying the voting in most states appeared to be fair. He alleged that someone voters were being intimidated in Baja California and that someone had thrown a gasoline bomb at the home of a local PRI municipal candidate.
Echoing Pena Nieto's stance that the party aims to be judged purely by its results, Camcho said: "In politics, the whole catalog of excuses doesn't work. In politics, what we want are results, what we need are solid facts, and that is what we will pay attention to."
Baja California faces significant problems of crime, the influx of internal migrants from other states, explosive growth and the pressure of dealing with tens of thousands of migrants deported from the United States each year. While violence in Tijuana has calmed from high levels several years ago, methamphetamine and other drugs have continued flowing to neighboring California after the Sinaloa cartel gained the upper hand in a turf war.
Victor Espinoza, a political analyst at Colegio de la Frontera Norte think tank, said Tijuana - whose mayorship is at stake - presents a huge challenge for anyone who is elected. The influx of deportees and migrants make the city's growth chaotic, and the city's topography of mountains and canyons makes it difficult and expensive to bring roads, sewage and other infrastructure to new neighborhoods.
"It is practically impossible for any government. The demand for services is always greater that the ability to deliver them," Espinoza said.
In the 13 other states where elections are being held, the weeks leading up to Sunday's vote were marked by a spate of shootings and attacks. At least eight politicians running for local posts, or their family members, have been killed. Others have reported being kidnapped or shot at.
On Friday, just two days before the election, a ninth murder claimed the life of a campaign coordinator for the leftist Democratic Revolution Party in the northern state of Zacatecas. Aquiles Gonzalez was found stabbed to death after apparently having been kidnapped. And on Sunday, a young political activist was shot to death in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz. Camacho claimed that the youth was a PRI supporter.
The causes of most of the attacks are still uncertain. Some fear that drug gangs are asserting their power. Others fear that candidates are being targeted by their rivals. But it is clear that people are being attacked for seeking office in areas where organized crime and old-style pols rule.
"There is starting to be violence every time there are elections, especially local elections," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a historian at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "There is more violence in local elections, because that is where the drug cartels have more influence than on a national level."
Experts have said in the past that is cheaper, less risky and more effective for the cartels to intimidate or control local government, than try to take on federal-level politicians. Since the gangs are essentially looking to retain local turf - for extortion, drug shipments and sales - intimidating local officials yields tangible results.
"Their thinking is that 'we are going to support the candidates who sympathize with us or whom we can negotiate with, and if there is a candidate who might win who won't make a deal with us, we'll tell him not to run or attack them, or even kill them,'" Crespo said.
While violence had marked some local elections in states such as Michoacan and Tamaulipas, "we had not seen it in other states, like we are see it now," said Torres-Ruiz.
There were also more traditional complaints of vote-buying, voter intimidation and attempts to prevent people from voting, especially in Oaxaca and Veracruz.
AP writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report