- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

CUERNAVACA, Mexico — Overshadowed by today’s presidential election are the gubernatorial races in three states, none of them tighter or with more psychological importance than the one in the tiny state of Morelos, south of Mexico City.

The same day that Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) wrested the presidency from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000, the PAN also won the Morelos governorship for the first time with the candidacy of Sergio Estrada.

Mr. Estrada received 57 percent of the vote by running on an anti-corruption platform against the PRI. But in 2004, he was charged with collusion with the Juarez drug cartel.

The 30-member state legislature fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to strip him of his immunity from prosecution. The national Supreme Court refused to intervene, so Mr. Estrada has limped his way to the end of his term under a cloud that has sullied his party’s reputation here.

Polls have shown conflicting results, and with a high percentage of respondents who refused to answer, the race is seen as a three-way crap shoot among the PAN’s Marco Adame, the PRI’s Maricela Sanchez and Fernando Martinez of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) of presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. A simple plurality wins.

Although only about the size of Rhode Island, Morelos is densely populated with 1.6 million people, an increasing number of them middle-class white-collar workers who commute 45 miles to Mexico City and who were key to Mr. Estrada’s election. It occupies a larger place in the Mexican psyche, however, as the home of legendary revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, whose image adorns T-shirts in the ubiquitous souvenir shops in this colonial city popular with tourists and American language students.

Mario Caballero, one of the five counselors of the nonpartisan State Electoral Institute that conducts elections, said Mr. Morales could experience something like what happened here in 2000, only this time to the PAN’s disadvantage.

“In 2000, the PAN won because the people were tired of so many years of the PRI and because of Fox’s coattails; he carried Morelos by 10 percentage points,” he said. “This year, Lopez Obrador has a wide lead here, which could help Martinez. Of the three, he is the one with the momentum.”

Asked if the scandal surrounding Mr. Estrada will hurt Mr. Adame, Mr. Caballero replied wryly, “It’s not going to help him. It’s a matter of image and conduct more than legality. There are some types of conduct that the people here don’t like.”

Mr. Caballero said Mr. Estrada was virtually invisible during the campaign, which by law ended Wednesday, while Mr. Adame ignored the scandal. Many of his campaign posters do not even contain the PAN logo.

Jalisco, which includes Guadalajara, and Guanajuato, Mr. Fox’s home state, also elect governors today. Both are controlled by the PAN and are expected to stay that way.

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