Katie Putnam, The Mexico Institute’s Elections Guide, 5/7/2012
The presidential candidates participate in their first televised debate, accusing each other of corruption and of misleading the public. Trailing candidates focus their criticisms on the frontrunner, Enrique Peña Nieto, who did not appear to suffer any fatal blows. Observers disagreed on the best performance of the evening, which suggests that no candidate had a clear win.
Many analysts viewed the May 6 debate as dangerous territory for the current frontrunner, the PRI’s Peña Nieto, because of his reputation for public gaffes and a tendency to avoid off-the-cuff conversations. The two-hour session was seen, according to The Associated Press, as a “test of whether Pena Nieto, a telegenic former governor of Mexico State who is married to a Mexican soap opera star, is able stray from his carefully choreographed campaign and think on his feet.” Both the PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota and the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador focused on attacking Peña Nieto’s record, coming out, as he put it, with “knives sharpened.” Vázquez Mota attempted to poke holes in his achievements as governor, citing an article in The Economist that questioned the reduction in homicides during Peña Nieto’s term. López Obrador, for his part, held up a photo of Peña Nieto with former Governor Arturo Montiel, whose career ended amid allegations of corruption.
By most accounts, however, Peña Nieto appeared unrattled, successfully dismissing the attacks. From a second AP article:
With questions agreed-upon beforehand, [Peña Nieto] stuck to his themes of change and competence, and parried Vázquez Mota’s critiques as based upon incorrect information, a frequent refrain from his team in the first month of the campaign. Under more pointed attack from López Obrador and Váquez Mota, his responses grew more aggressive and heated, but he avoided any major errors […]
He countered López Obrador’s photo, for example, with one of the PRD candidate with a former aide indicted for corruption. In terms of policy, Peña Nieto emphasized the need for a unified state-level police force, a modernized judicial system, universal health coverage, and for greater private sector participation in the state-owned oil company Pemex. He pointed to the Brazilian and Colombian examples as models, and also stressed the importance of renewable energy. His overall performance was strong, without any of the much anticipated fumbles.
In addition to her attacks on Peña Nieto, Vázquez Mota once again stressed that she is “different,” both from the past two presidents from her party and from the frontrunner in this race. She paired her questioning of the former governor’s achievements with her own successes in improving education and reducing poverty as Minister of Education and Minister of Social Development, respectively. On security, Vázquez Mota committed herself to serving victims of organized crime and to instituting life sentences for officials that collaborate with organized crime. On energy, she proposed issuing citizen bonds to fund the modernization of Pemex.
Vázquez Mota also emphasized the advantages of electing a women president. “I want to be president because I have the sensitivity, as a woman, to listen.”
López Obrador likened a Peña Nieto victory and a return of the PRI to the return of General Antonio López Santa Anna, who sold much of Mexico’s territory to the United States in 1853. AMLO, as he is commonly known, argued that Mexicans have a choice between the continuity of the PRI and PAN with governments that have favored the rich and AMLO’s “true change” for Mexico. He committed to providing seven million jobs over his would-be six year term, in part through efforts to weaken the hold of business monopolies on the Mexican economy.
López Obrador, too, tried repeatedly to pin down Peña Nieto, to little avail. He accused his rival of wanting to privatize Mexico, for instance, which Peña Nieto strongly rebutted. AMLO started off the debate slowly but concluded in a much more animated voice. Unfortunately, by then many had tuned out. Some of our Facebook followers, for example, had switched over to the quarter-final match between two of Mexico’s best soccer teams on TV Azteca. The network’s decision to schedule the game during the debate inspired a controversy in Mexico last week; the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), however, did not force the television networks to show the debate.
Gabriel Quadri, the fourth presidential candidate who attracts less than a percent of the intended vote, was surprisingly animated. Many of his responses were engaging and detailed, and he criticized the other candidates, whom he called “politicians,” for engaging in politics as usual.
Quadri remained largely irrelevant to the debate, however; the other candidates failed to response to his interjections.
Experts convened by Reforma newspaper pointed to Vázquez Mota and Quadri as the best performers, while a poll by El Universal favored Peña Nieto and López Obrador. What is evident, perhaps, is that none of the main contenders came away with a clear victory.
Nevertheless, Peña Nieto’s “teflon” proved stronger than expected, as Duncan Wood of ITAM concluded on Animal Político’s El Palenque. CIDE’s Jorge Chabat, on the same site, incorporated the soccer-debate controversy into his analysis: Peña Nieto, he writes, played goalie all night, with Vázquez Mota and López Obrador trying to score from all angles and at all speeds. He argues that the other contenders made a few goals, but wonders if they were significant enough to dent Peña Nieto’s lead.
The next debate is scheduled for June 10.