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Mexico votes in local polls under shadow of violence

Baja California's candidate for governor, Francisco Vega, pictured in Tijuana, Baja California, on July 7, 2013
Baja California's candidate for governor of the coalition "Unidos por Baja California", Francisco Vega, casts his vote during local elections in Tijuana, Baja California, on July 7, 2013.

Mexico held local elections in 14 states with one key governorship at stake, as voting was marred by ballot theft claims, a Molotov cocktail attack and a ruling party militant's slaying.

The governor's seat in Baja California state, held by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) opposition for the past 24 years, was the biggest prize in the regional polls and its result could affect a national reforms pact.

Some 32 million voters on Sunday were eligible to cast ballots in 931 of the country's 2,440 municipalities as well as for candidates in state legislatures.

It is the first election since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in December with a pledge to reduce the drug violence that killed 70,000 during the six years of his PAN predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

He has also promised to break with the old ways of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had lost the presidency in 2000 after holding power uninterrupted for 71 years with a mix of vote rigging and repression.

In these regional elections, the country's three main parties trade accusations of intimidation and corruption in various states during what turned out to be one of the most violent campaign seasons in recent years.

A PRI member died of gunshot wounds in the eastern Veracruz state town of Coxquihui after a "possible partisan clash," a state government spokesman told AFP.

The daily Reforma, citing a PRI source, said the man died when PAN militants shot at the campaign headquarters of the PRI's mayoral candidate in Coxquihui.

A voter has her right thumb stained with ink after casting her vote in general elections, on July 1, 2012 in Mexico City
A voter has her right thumb stained with indelible ink after casting her vote during Mexico's general elections, on July 1, 2012 in Mexico City.

But a PAN official told AFP that the party's militants had spotted a warehouse where the PRI was giving "handouts" to voters and that they were shot at from that building. A stray bullet killed the PRI member, the official said.

In Baja California, which borders the United States, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the house of a candidate from the Social Meeting Party. The politician escaped unscathed.

A smooth election could be key to keeping together a Pact for Mexico that Pena Nieto struck with the PAN and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) that led to major education and telecommunication reforms.

The president now hopes to pass tricky overhauls of the energy sector and tax system.

But the pact coud be also be affected if the PAN loses Baja California, which could weaken Madero, whose deal with the PRI has caused dissent within his party.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said the election was going well apart from isolated incidents.

Soldiers provided security in several states following a rash of violence that took the lives of a half-dozen candidates, campaign workers and their relatives in recent weeks.

On Friday, a PRD mayoral campaign manager was murdered in the northern state of Zacatecas.

Ballot thefts, meanwhile, were reported in the southern state of Oaxaca and the central state of Puebla along with other election shenanigans.

PAN president Gustavo Madero himself said he was unable to vote at his polling station in the northern state of Chihuahua, posting a video on Twitter of the closed location and the message "Morning TRICKS of the PRI."

PRD head Jesus Zambrano claimed that organized crime groups operated for PRI candidates in various states.

The PRI rejected the accusations and countered that the opposition committed abuses. A PRI candidate in Chihuahua has been among the victims of the campaign season.