Mexico City (AFP) - Mexico's ruling party on Monday tumbled toward historic defeats in several gubernatorial elections seen as a gauge for its hopes of retaining the presidency in 2018.
Before Sunday's vote, President Enrique Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held nine of the 12 states at play. There are 32 federal jurisdictions in Mexico.
But preliminary results showed that it was leading in just five states and losing two key bastions, Tamaulipas and Veracruz, both oil-rich regions that it has controlled for more than 80 years.
The biggest winner was the conservative National Action Party (PAN), which was ahead in seven states, including three in partnership with the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).
"This is truly historic for the PAN," party leader Ricardo Anaya told Radio Formula, noting that the PAN had never won so many states in one election, including Durango and Quintana Roo, two other longtime PRI strongholds.
"If we show results in those states, the PAN will reclaim the presidency in 2018," Anaya said.
The PAN ended the PRI's 71-year hold on the presidency in 2000, but Pena Nieto returned his party to power in 2012.
The president's popularity, however, has since fallen to 30 percent, with Mexicans unhappy at his handling of the economy, corruption and drug violence.
Pena Nieto, during a meeting with bankers, said the election was a time of "sadness and reflection" for those who lost.
"As leaders, we must listen and attend to the message of the people. Our democracy is, without a doubt, perfectible," he said.
While the PRD had a tough night, losing Oaxaca to the PRI, leftist party leader Agustin Basave said voters "came out to punish the government and the PRI."
- 'Corrupt government' -
The biggest prize was Veracruz, the third most populous state in the country.
The state has been run since 2010 by the unpopular Governor Javier Duarte, whose administration has been marred by drug violence, the killings of 18 journalists and corruption allegations.
With nearly 86 percent of votes counted, PAN-PRD coalition candidate Miguel Angel Yunes led with 34.2 percent compared to 30.4 percent for his cousin, PRI candidate Hector Yunes Landa.
"We did it. Together we removed the corrupt government of the PRI," Yunes said on Twitter before making a speech vowing to investigate any officials who "plundered" public funds and let gangs infiltrate government agencies.
Yunes Landa all but conceded, admitting that the results "don't favor us."
Cuitlahuac Garcia Jimenez of the left-wing Morena party was third with 26.5 percent, denying a victory for its founder, two-time presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
The election in Veracruz was marked by violence before and during the vote.
A human head was found in front of a polling place on Saturday, while the opposition said people received anonymous text messages warning them not to vote.
- Drug state votes PAN -
In Tamaulipas, another state beset by drug violence, PAN candidate Francisco Garcia Cabeza de Vaca just over half the votes while his PRI rival was 14 points behind him.
The PAN and PRI exchanged accusations of bowing to pressure from drug cartels during the campaign in Tamaulipas.
In 2010, PRI gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantu was assassinated. His brother, Egidio, was elected.