Ballots in Mexico, Venezuela test presidential strength
Web posted at: 10:06 p.m. EST (0306 GMT)
(CNN) -- Voters in Venezuela and Mexico went to the polls Sunday to cast ballots in gubernatorial and legislative elections that, in both countries, could indicate who their next presidents might be.
In Venezuela, the ballot was seen as a key test of the popularity of Hugo Chavez, a populist candidate in next month's presidential race running on an anti-corruption, anti-establishment platform.
In Mexico, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was trying to fend off challenges from both the left and right in gubernatorial elections in the states of Sinaloa, Puebla and Tlaxcala and in an election for legislators and mayors in Michoacan.
The results in those races could indicate how well PRI might fare in the 2000 presidential election. The Michoacan ballot was also seen as a test for the presidential aspirations of leftist Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who once governed the state.
Turnout heavy in Venezuela
Six years ago, Chavez made an unsuccessful attempt to topple the Venezuelan government in a coup. Now, supported by million of peasants and shantytown dwellers, he is considered the front-runner for the presidency.
Candidates affiliated with his Patriotic Pole coalition appeared poised to make strong gains in Sunday's vote for members of Congress, 23 governorships and delegates to regional legislatures.
Turnout was so strong that election authorities announced they would extend voting for two hours beyond the scheduled 4 p.m. (2000 GMT) cutoff. The first results weren't expected until at least 8 p.m. (midnight GMT).
As he cast his ballot, Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera -- whose army chief recently implied that the armed forces might block Chavez's rise to power -- declared the election "an expression of the will of the people."
Amid fears of violence, security was tight, with 100,000 police officers and soldiers mobilized for the vote.
Chavez's coalition was battling Venezuela's two oldest parties, the center-left Democratic Action Party and the conservative Copei Party, both of which have well-oiled political machines that can get out the vote.
Caldera's party, Convergence, is not expected to be a major player in the elections, nor was the Project Venezuela movement of Chavez's chief rival for president, Henrique Salas.
However, the latest polls show Salas closing the gap to within 6 percentage points of Chavez.
In Mexico, most eyes on Sinaloa
In Mexico, the most closely watched race was in Sinaloa, along the northwestern Pacific coast, where pre-election polls showed PRI's candidate neck-and-neck with a candidate from the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.
The PRI's candidates were favored to win governorships in Puebla and Tlaxcala, both in central Mexico. However, Cardenas' leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, was thought to have a shot in Tlaxcala.
First results weren't expected until early Monday morning.
If the PRD does well in Michoacan or Tlaxcala, Cardenas' presidential aspirations could get a boost. Another possible PRI candidate, Interior Minister Francisco Labastida, could be helped by a PRI victory in his home state of Sinaloa.
One of Labastida's possible rivals for the PRI presidential nomination, outgoing Gov. Manuel Bartlett of Puebla, could also be helped if his party manages to keep the governorship.
After the 1997 midterm election where the PRI lost control of the lower house of Congress and the mayor's office in Mexico City, its prospects in 2000 looked bleak. But this year, PRI has roared back, winning five of the seven governorships contested to this point.
Wins in Sunday's ballot would move that scorecard to eight of 10.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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