COSOLEACAQUE, Mexico – It looks like party time in Veracruz. Women in feathered bikinis gyrate to bouncy dance music praising the ruling party. A bused-in crowd of voters mills beneath a tent covering a full city block, waiting to celebrate the man who — if 87 years of history holds true — has a strong shot at becoming the next governor.
The upbeat spectacle is part of efforts to burnish the battered image of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Veracruz, a state it has never lost despite years of drug cartel violence, looted government coffers and multiple unsolved killings of journalists.
It is depending on loyal voters like Rubiselia Alor Perez, a single mother from an outlying neighborhood of this city of 23,000.
Asked how things had gone in the state, Alor said, "Worse, worse — unemployment, crime, everything." Nevertheless, she's sticking with the party known as the PRI: "I was born with my party," Alor said. "There you stay."
Polls indicate the PRI has a fighting chance to win yet again in Veracruz and most of the other 11 states holding elections on Sunday — victories that could smooth its path to keeping the presidency two years from now.
"The more state governments the parties have, the more resources they have to mobilize and buy the vote," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at Mexico's Center for Economic Research and Teaching. "So if the PRI loses some important places its probability (of winning in 2018) diminishes."
Veracruz is the biggest of the states choosing governors and one of five — along with Durango, Hidalgo, Quintana Roo and Tamaulipas — in which the PRI has never lost even as its once iron grip on power has eroded across the nation as a whole.
While President Enrique Pena Nieto is suffering historically low approval ratings, PRI leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones says he expects to win eight of those statehouses. The party now controls nine of them.
The PRI finally lost the presidency in 2000 for the first time in 71 years. But even in a more competitive era it remains the country's most powerful political force, controlling with its allies about half the seats in both houses of congress and 19 of 32 governorships. It won back the presidency itself in 2012.
At first glance, conditions would appear ideal for change in Veracruz.
Last week, five dismembered bodies were dumped on a highway near the Veracruz city of Cordoba. A sign left with the dead suggested one drug cartel was "cleaning up" its rivals. Days earlier, six people were killed in two nightclub shootings. Sixteen journalists have been slain in Veracruz during the six-year term of the widely reviled outgoing governor, Javier Duarte. Businesses regularly complain of extortion by drug cartels.
But the PRI still enjoys an extensive party machinery as well as loyalty that has been cultivated — some say bought — over decades.
Three polls published this week by national newspapers showed the PRI's Hector Yunes Landa in a tight three-way race. His chief rivals are his cousin, Miguel Angel Yunes Linares, who is backed by an alliance of convenience between the conservative National Action Party and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, and Cuitlahuac Garcia of the upstart Morena party — a little-known candidate who has surprised some by turning the race into a three-man fight.
Yunes Linares comes with his own political baggage. He has been dogged by — and denies — alleged connections with a more than decade-old pedophilia scandal that implicated several political and business leaders, although many voters like Lourdes Rosales Calvo don't believe the accusations.
Rosales' son was taken by gunmen in Veracruz city in 2013 and has not been heard from since. She blamed the PRI for allowing organized crime to flourish in the state and said she would vote for Yunes Linares, who met with her and other women whose children vanished in recent years.
"He really wants to hand Duarte over to the people (for punishment). ... Everybody wants Duarte to pay for all of his garbage," she said.
The federal attorney general's special prosecutor for electoral crimes recently told the newspaper El Universal that his office had received over 250 reports of alleged electoral crimes in Veracruz, tops for all Mexico. Among the most common is "electoral tourism," in which people are brought to Veracruz from other states and registered to vote. In the coastal city of Coatzacoalcos, the prosecutor said his office was investigating one case involving 854 suspicious voters.
"There has never been a crisis so generalized, so absurd, a governor so unpopular, a collapse of the state," said Alberto Olvera, a researcher at Veracruz University, where teachers and administrators accuse the governor of siphoning away federal money earmarked for the school. "The only reason why the PRI could have a remote chance of winning the elections is the effectiveness of its system for buying votes and rural electoral nepotism."
Yet other parties stand accused, too. In Mexico City, for example, Morena leaders are feuding with the party they broke away from, Democratic Revolution, accusing it of buying votes with home water tanks and other goods.
On the day of the PRI's rally in Cosoleacaque, sitting in the back of the small shop where he sells thumb drives and printer cartridges, Eduardo Soto said he was unimpressed by either of the Yuneses.
"They're cousins," he said. "Whichever one you vote for, it's the same."
Soto said he was considering Morena's Garcia, but didn't know much about him.
"People don't trust any of the candidates. They don't even vote for that reason," Soto said. "They feel like their vote doesn't matter."