Toluca (Mexico) (AFP) - Mexico's ruling party narrowly held onto the governorship of the country's largest state Sunday, according to preliminary election results, but a fiery leftist hoping to ride the race to the presidency cried foul.
The election in the state of Mexico, President Enrique Pena Nieto's home state, was closely watched as a bellwether ahead of presidential polls next year.
It was a must-win race for Pena Nieto and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had to fend off a fierce challenge from an upstart leftist party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), and its founder, presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
The PRI's candidate, Alfredo del Mazo, leads Lopez Obrador's protegee, Delfina Gomez, by about two percentage points, according to a rapid count released by the electoral authority.
It said Del Mazo won between 32.75 and 33.59 percent of the vote, against a score of 30.73 to 31.53 percent for Gomez.
It called the difference between them "statistically significant," with a confidence level of 95 percent, based on a sample of polling stations.
- Battle looming? -
Lopez Obrador immediately rejected the result.
"According to our results, Delfina won," he said in a video posted online. "We will accept no fraud."
He vowed to challenge the outcome, though he said his party would do so peacefully.
Gomez echoed his rejection.
"We won the election," she said.
But Del Mazo was quick to deliver his victory speech, promising "a government of inclusion, of unity."
The fight may be far from over, with street protests and court challenges possible.
Morena, which has never held a governorship, was never supposed to come this close in the key central state, which cups Mexico City.
The PRI has ruled there for more than 80 years.
But the campaign in the state of 16 million people turned into a chance for Mexicans to vent their long list of frustrations with the PRI, the party that has ruled the country for 76 of the past 88 years.
Del Mazo comes from a long line of former state governors, including not only his father and grandfather but also Pena Nieto, his cousin.
To critics, that smacks of the nepotism and backroom deals they say dog the PRI, a broadly centrist party that has been plagued by corruption scandals, violent crime and a lackluster economy since Pena Nieto ushered it back to power in 2012.
Del Mazo, 41, faced a radically different kind of candidate in Gomez, 54, a schoolteacher who played up her humble background as a construction worker's daughter.
- 'PRI not dead' -
His apparent win shows that "the PRI is not dead," political analyst Fernando Dworak told AFP.
But the party is still unlikely to win next year's presidential election, he added.
Lopez Obrador remains "the candidate to beat" next year, said another analyst, historian Hector Aguilar Camin, in comments to Televisa TV.
The firebrand populist, whose enemies say he would lead Mexico down the same path as Venezuela, has a history of fighting long after the voting is done.
After his unsuccessful 2006 presidential bid, he proclaimed himself the "legitimate president" as his supporters camped out for weeks in central Mexico City.