Mexico City - Mexicans calmly went to the polls yesterday in two important state elections in which the electorate's retribution for the economic crisis is almost certain to fall on the long established ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
In the contests for the governorships of the central states of Guanajuato and Yucatan, in south-eastern Mexico, the PRI faces a voter backlash that puts it at one of the most critical junctures in its 66 years in power.
Opinion polls suggest that in Guanajuato the opposition National Action Party (PAN) may inflict on the PRI the biggest defeat in any state election in its history, reflecting anger at the worsening economic recession as well as a groundswell of support for the outspoken PAN candidate, Vicente Fox.
Mr Fox, a Harvard-educated farmer with his eye on the Presidency, has attacked President Ernesto Zedillo and the PRI for the crisis that has sent farms and businesses into bankruptcy and living standards plummeting in this agricultural heartland as well as in other parts of Mexico.
Only four of Mexico's 32 states have ever been lost by the ruling party and a major reverse in Guanajuato would be a blow to Mr Zedillo, who helped to trigger the crisis by devaluing the peso shortly after taking office in December.
In Yucatan, the PRI hopes to salvage some credibility, with opinion polls putting it clearly ahead of the PAN. The Mayan Indian peasants, whose vote for the PRI is virtually a tradition, may be crucial.But charges of vote-buying and other dirty tricks by PRI's candidate and old-style party boss, Victor Cervera Pacheco, have clouded the run-up to the elections. The PRI denies the allegations but any suspicion of irregularities could harm the party's image in the state.
PAN federal deputies travelled to Yucatan this weekend to help to monitor the vote. The party's leaders have warned that any fraud could badly compromise the all-party talks on democratic reforms.