June 9, 2015 / 12:14 AM / 4 years ago

Mexico's ruling party close to keeping majority despite violence, graft

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto was close to retaining a slim majority in the lower house of Congress on Monday despite losing support in mid-term elections marked by public anger over corruption, gang violence and weak economic growth.

A woman in a wheelchair casts her ballot during mid-term elections in the town of Santiago, state of Nuevo Leon, June 7, 2015. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Mexicans voted on Sunday for the 500-strong lower house as well as nine state governorships and more than 1,000 state and municipal posts in what was seen as a referendum on Pena Nieto’s rule. The Senate was not up for renewal.

By late Monday afternoon, with around 93 percent of polling station returns counted, preliminary results showed that Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its allies in Congress had won 40 percent of the vote.

That was down about two percentage points from the 2012 election when the PRI, the Green Party and the smaller New Alliance Party won a one-seat majority of 251 seats.

Underscoring disenchantment with the PRI, a blunt, outspoken rancher who defected from the party became the first independent candidate to win a state governorship in modern Mexican history.

Jaime Rodriguez easily defeated the PRI in the northern state of Nuevo Leon after tapping into widespread discontent with established parties.

“We’ve had so much corruption, so much violence and people want change,” said Jose Palacio Rodriguez, 38, a teacher in Mexico City.

Initial estimates from Mexico’s electoral authority had the PRI and its partners winning between 246 and 263 lower house seats. The PRI could benefit if, as forecast, votes from smaller parties who fail to get the minimum percentage needed to enter Congress are redistributed.

Jorge Buendia, head of polling firm Buendia & Laredo, said he had “no doubt” that the PRI had won just enough votes.

More detailed results are not expected until Wednesday.

In second place, the center-right National Action Party had 20.9 percent of the vote, one of its worst recent showings.

The big loser was the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). It stood on 10.8 percent of the vote after breakaway former leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s new Morena party diluted its base and captured 8.4 percent support.

The campaign was blighted by drug cartel intimidation and teachers protesting against education reforms. At least seven candidates and nine political officials were killed during it.

In the first part of his presidency, Pena Nieto enacted major economic reforms, but problems later started to pile up.

Stung by international outcry over the apparent massacre of 43 students in September by a drug gang working with local police, Pena Nieto was then caught up in a conflict-of-interest scandal following revelations that he, his wife and his finance minister had bought houses from government contractors.

Having fulfilled the bulk of his main legislative pledges, including measures to end the state oil and gas monopoly and open up the telecoms sector to competition, Pena Nieto is not expected to rely on Congress as much in his last three years.

Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter, Michael O'Boyle, Liz Diaz and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman

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