- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

HERMOSILLO, Mexico — No contest in Mexico’s midterm elections today has drawn more national attention than the governor’s race in the northwestern border state of Sonora.

The reason: It’s close, it’s dirty, and it could have a big say in the fate of the remainder of embattled President Vicente Fox’s six-year term.

At stake are all 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, and six state governorships.

Mr. Fox had hopes that his center-right National Action Party, or PAN, could win an absolute majority in the lower house, but that now seems unlikely.

The PAN could even lose the governorships of Nuevo Leon and Queretaro, which it won for the first time in the 1997 midterm elections.

The PAN could win the Sonora governorship for the first time from the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated Mexico for 71 years until Mr. Fox’s 2000 landmark presidential victory.

Polls show the PAN’s Ramon Corral, 57, in a dead heat with the PRI’s Eduardo Bours, 47, in what has been the country’s ugliest race this year.

The mudslinging was so bad that local and national pundits dubbed it “the black campaign.”

Both men are wealthy businessmen and federal senators. Both have made grandiose U.S.-style campaign promises. Each has accused the other of shady business practices, and each calls the other a liar.

“It’s a statistical tie,” said Vicente Gallardo, polling director for El Imparcial, the leading daily here. He said the paper’s last poll on June 23 gave Mr. Bours 49.2 percent to Mr. Corral’s 45.9 percent, with a three-point margin of error.

In his closing rally in Huatabampo before 15,000 PAN supporters, Mr. Corral said, “There have been many attacks on me in this campaign, but the heart is stronger than the lie,” referring to his heart-shaped logo and the slogan, “For Sonora from the heart.”

Speaking to 42,000 PRI backers in Ciudad Obregon, Mr. Bours took the high road, saying, “The campaign has caused us to mark our differences, to point them out, to show the people who we are and what we want.”

Mr. Fox enjoys a 64 percent approval rating, but his coattails have not benefited PAN candidates. He campaigned for Mr. Corral here a month ago but was widely criticized. Mr. Gallardo explained that, unlike the United States, presidential visits are resented as interference in local affairs.

Jose Peralta, a political radio commentator and professor of communication psychology at the University of Sonora, said a PAN defeat here “would not be a disgrace for Fox, but it would be a setback.”

Sonora, which borders Arizona and has a population of 2.5 million, is typical of the newly affluent states of northern Mexico that have benefited from maquiladora assembly plants and from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

With affluence has come increased political conservatism. Northern Mexico is the PAN’s power base; seven of the nine states it has won are north of Mexico City.

Hermosillo has a huge Ford assembly plant, but the main engine for Sonora’s economic boom has been increased agricultural exports, primarily citrus, peaches, grapes and tomatoes grown on irrigated desert fields. Ninety percent are exported to the United States.

Michael Mentges, 48, a German-born businessman who owns a fruit export firm and maintains residences here and in California, said he has seen dramatic changes in the 13 years he has operated from Hermosillo.

“In 2001, we packed 9 million boxes [of fruit] industrywide in Sonora,” he said. “You can figure about $10 per box. In 2002, it was 12 million, this year it will be 15 million, and next year it should be a million more.”

As a border state, Sonora also is in the forefront of the war on drugs. The state is in the sphere of influence of the notorious Tijuana Cartel.

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