MEXICO CITY — With accusations of fraud and lots of mudslinging, Mexico's three main parties are battling for control of the country's largest state — a contest that could set the tone for upcoming congressional elections and the presidential vote in 2006.
The midterm congressional elections are the most important political contest since Vicente Fox became the first opposition candidate to win the presidency in 71 years.
The vote on July 6 will determine whether Fox faces a friendly or hostile Congress for the final three years of his six-year term.
Fox has had one eye on the elections as he struggles to define a position on Iraq that won't anger voters, many of whom oppose U.S. military intervention.
The country could get a preview of things to come on Sunday, when voters in Mexico state elect 45 state lawmakers and 124 mayors. With its diverse mix of people, the state is often viewed as a microcosm of the country as a whole and has been a fertile ground for testing political alliances and platforms.
"I think it would be analogous in the United States to having local elections in California, New York and Florida on the same day," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "Even though these are local elections, they have a major national impact."
A sprawling region of suburbs and shantytowns surrounding Mexico City, the state is the country's most populous, with 13 million residents and more than 8 million voters — almost as many voters as Chile.
Mexico state is governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled the country for seven decades until Fox's victory.
The party, gunning for a national comeback, already is campaigning furiously with television and radio ads that mock the president's promises while touting the PRI's many years of experience.
In Mexico state, the PRI has teamed up with the Green Party, which ran alongside Fox in 2000. It also sponsored a nonbinding referendum in the state last month on whether to institute the death penalty. An overwhelming number of voters said they would back the move.
Meanwhile, the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, is pushing the highly successful social programs of its most popular member, Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
But while it may be a harbinger of future national political platforms, Mexico state is not a reliable indicator of who will win later federal elections, analysts warn.
It was just one year after a PRI candidate won a solid victory in Mexico state's gubernatorial elections that Fox and his National Action Party, or PAN, won the 2000 presidential elections.
Sunday's elections are most likely to predict the emotional and moral tenor of upcoming federal campaigns as well as future voter attitudes, political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo said.
If that's the case, Mexico may have a long, nasty battle ahead.
Just last week, the director of Mexico state's electoral commission was physically assaulted in an elevator — although officials have no direct evidence tying the attack to the elections.
The PRI has filed formal complaints accusing Fox and his wife, Marta Sahagun, of using government money for PAN campaign events.
And the Democratic Revolution Party claims to have found evidence that the PRI planned to distribute thousands of sacks of cement for home construction in exchange for votes in the city of Texcoco — one of the many dirty tactics for which the PRI was known during its 71 years in power.
Throughout the Mexico state capital, Toluca, some disgruntled residents are distributing a poster advocating a boycott of the vote.
"Don't vote this March 9th!" the poster said. "PAN members are liars and killers. PRD members are violent, corrupt and criminal. PRI members are criminals and corrupt."
That pretty much sums it up for Martha Robles, 60, a sales manager in the Mexico state capital of Toluca.
"I'm not going to vote for any of those clowns," she said. "We are tired and fed up with these election games; they are pure idiocy. I no longer want to waste my time."