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Mexico’s Presidential Debate Leaves the Race Largely Unchanged

posted May 10, 2012, 9:49 AM by Unknown user   [ updated May 10, 2012, 9:53 AM ]

On the evening of Sunday May 6, Mexico’s four presidential candidates faced off in a debate that was widely hailed as an acid test for the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN). Leading by a formidable margin in the polls, EPN is generally seen as an intellectual lightweight compared to his opponents, so the debate was seen as an opportunity for Josefina Vázquez Mota (JVM), the candidate for the ruling PAN party, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the leftist PRD, to chip away at his lead. JVM and AMLO were each expected to launch a vehement attack on the PRIista, raising accusations of corruption and mismanagement during Peña Nieto’s tenure as governor of the State of Mexico. 

In the end, the expected fireworks proved to be more damp squibs than electrifying pyrotechnics. AMLO’s performance, in particular, was disappointing in the extreme, as he appeared slow, out of touch and repetitive. Despite his reputation as a firebrand representative of Mexico’s disadvantaged classes, AMLO seemed unable to muster his famous blood and thunder, instead speaking so slowly that he was cut off by the timekeeper over and over again. He made a number of rookie television errors, such as holding up supposedly damning photographs, but upside down or off- camera. His attacks on EPN focused on the elite groups backing him, the same groups that AMLO claims have held back Mexican development. He also made reference to the misappropriation of funds during Peña Nieto’s mandate as governor; the PRIista simply brushed away the accusation. 

Ms. Vázquez Mota was not much better. Her performance was variously described as “robotic”, “mechanical” and most damningly, “dull”. She launched attack after attack on Peña Nieto, but he rebutted by claiming that she had been misinformed by her advisors. Faced with EPN’s stonewalling, the PANista had few other weapons in her arsenal. 

EPN countered with accusations concerning JVM’s attendance in the Congress (which she denied), and was able to make a number of statements regarding his own policy proposals. In response to AMLO’s accusation that he would privatize Pemex, the national oil company, Peña Nieto emphatically stated that his government would not pursue such a strategy. Neither of his main opponents could penetrate his famed “Teflon” coating, and he finished the debate undamaged. The PRI’s man even managed to appear presidential at certain moments of the debate. 

The fourth candidate, Gabriel Quadri de la Torre (GQT), proved to be the surprise of the debate, as he escaped attacks by the others and managed to distinguish himself as the “non-politician”. His policy proposals made sense, and he came across as statesman-like. Of course, Quadri de la Torre had little or nothing to lose, commanding only 1 percent of popular support in recent polls. His performance, however, was widely recognized as the most competent of the four. 

Press coverage of the debate has been fascinating, with different newspapers nominating different candidates as the victor. Reforma newspaper, of course, declared Ms. Vázquez Mota the winner, while La Jornada, a leftist paper, went with AMLO. Social media coverage of the debate was frantic and wildly popular, with Twitter feeds and Facebook posts on the event dominating web content in Mexico on Sunday night and Monday. On political website Animal Politico, analyst José Antonio Crespo argued that the big winner was Quadri de la Torre, and therefore Elba Esther Gordillo (known as La Maestra) who heads the teachers’ union and is behind GQT’s PANAL party. 

But the reality is that this was a missed opportunity for JVM and AMLO. Their failure to significantly damage EPN’s image, to land knock-out punches, or to expose his supposed intellectual fragility, means that Peña Nieto will continue his march towards July 1 with little change in his polling numbers. Indeed, Milenio newspaper has been publishing a daily poll and the latest results show that EPN was unaffected by the debate, whereas Quadri de la Torre is up to around 4.7 percent. This means that, if the party can hold this support, the PANAL will likely retain its status as an official party.

By Duncan Wood, CSIS, May 9, 2012