TIJUANA, Mexico – In a climate of violence and political squabbling, Mexicans go the polls Sunday in five states that could be a prelude to the 2006 presidential elections.

President Vicente Fox’s opposition National Action Party appears to be losing ground.

Gubernatorial elections are being held in southern Puebla state, in the narcotics-infested Pacific state of Sinaloa, the Gulf Coast State of Tamaulipas and Tlaxcala, a mountainous state northeast of Mexico City. In western Michoacan state, residents will also choose 40 legislators.

They are the last regional elections in a busy voting year. The four states electing a governor are key for Mexico’s three main parties prior to the July 2006 presidential balloting.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, that held power since 1929 was ousted in July 2000 by Fox’s party, known as the PAN. It is trying ferociously to regain the presidency.

Fox, whose party lacks a majority in Congress and hasn’t been able to pass legislation for fiscal, economic and other reforms, is losing popularity.

Voters have returned to the PRI in earlier gubernatorial races. Some are just dropping out of the electoral process amid widespread cynicism.

On Friday, PAN officials showed the press a huge warehouse they found stuffed with food, blankets, PRI publicity and other amenities they suggest may be used to buy votes.

This year, elections have been marred by political violence and contested balloting where the federal electoral institute can take months to determine who won.

The PAN said it expects close elections in Tamaulipas and Puebla and predicts triumphs in Tlaxcala and Sinaloa. Polls show tight races, with the PRI a few points ahead.

In Puebla, surveys have shown PRI candidate Mario Plutarco Marin Torres is ahead of PAN candidate Francisco Antonio Fraile Garcia. A young woman was crushed to death and 27 other injured in the melee at a PRI rally in Tepeji de Rodriguez county, Puebla, on Wednesday.

Many state resident and local leaders have asked for extra security. In Michoacan, a stronghold of Mexico’s third largest party, the PRD, leaders from the three sides exchanged bitter arguments about campaign illegalities with fears of violence growing.

The PRI has asked for the army to guarantee safety.

In Tlaxcala, Gov. Reyes Anaya said that 1,800 security officers would be deployed.

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-13-04 1817EST

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