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Mexico’s Final Presidential Debate

The second and final debate between Mexico’s four presidential contenders last night acted in accordance with public polling. Enrique Peña Nieto of the Partido de la Revolución Institucional (PRI) succeeded in not jeopardizing his lead.  Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), now in second place, held back negative attacks to gain independents’ backing. Josefina Vázquez Mota of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), in third place, pounced on all three opponents in an effort to tie AMLO for second place.  And Gabriel Quadri of Partido Nueva Alianza (PANAL), polling in the single digits, continued to draw attention to the PAN, PRI and PRD and their failed policies.    

Among the electorate, Mexicans from all corners left nothing to chance on debate day.  An estimated 90,000 protesters from youth movement YoSoy132 tied up downtown Mexico City as well as Guadalajara where the debate took place. These university students protested against Peña Nieto and honored the fallen on the 41st anniversary of the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971 when government-sponsored paramilitary soldiers killed more than 100 students in Mexico City during anti-government protests.  House arrest and formal charges against ex-President Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) for homicide and genocide would follow, but the Supreme Court eventually lifted the house arrest and exonerated Echeverría citing statute of limitations precedents.      

Enrique Peña Nieto arrived tanned and fresh, but became tongue-tied as he spoke of more efficient government with independent citizen candidacies for federal office, introducing referenda for all Mexicans and offering a leaner congress with fewer legislators. He also lamented Mexico’s violence and poor security, which caused a decline in Mexico’s international standing; he showed a graph placing Mexico only above El Salvador on citizen security issues and declared Mexico’s security situation impedes economic growth and allows competitors like Brazil a disproportionate amount of foreign investment. Peña Nieto led few attacks, but did place on display PAN’s and PRD’s false pretenses of ideological purity by reminding viewers that both parties forged electoral alliances in recent years to win state and local elections against the PRI.  The candidate constantly reminded voters his only mission as president will be to ensure “Mexicans win.” He promised better-paying jobs, economic growth, universal health coverage, free school utensils for all public education students, and to purge hunger from student rolls. 

AMLO, as in the previous debate, continued his slow narration of ideas. His main proposal involved growing the Mexican economy at 6 percent per year, and to produce 7 million jobs in six years by curbing corruption, reducing bureaucracy salaries and enacting a national austerity plan.  All opponents quickly questioned his proposal and AMLO was never able to refute his challengers´ assertions that the plan was flawed.  In addition, he expressed a willingness to convince the U.S. to boost financial aid and cooperation on social issues in Mexico; and later referenced U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as his approach to create a million jobs in four weeks. 

Perhaps AMLO’s best line came when he opined that all the free-trade agreements in the world do little to advance Mexico unless Mexico begins to put people back to work at home.  No one debated this point.  But as quickly as opponents began to ponder this undeniable fact, AMLO looked down and sluggishly began reading a list of names identifying his cabinet picks.           

Josefina Vázquez Mota had something for everyone during the debate, lodging strong attacks against Peña Nieto, AMLO and even Quadri, but not before reminding everyone she was a mother and hardworking woman from lower-middle class upbringing who rose through the public school system to run Mexico’s social development and education ministries. She attacked the virtual frontrunner for his party’s tendency for authoritarianism and claimed Peña Nieto bankrolled political henchmen while governor of Mexico state to silence opponents. Vázquez Mota also referenced Peña Nieto’s disappearance into a public restroom after being hounded by students after an event at Iberoamericana University in Mexico City, adding that the country doesn’t need a leader who hides in the bathroom when the going gets tough.   

The panista pledged to support Mexicans living in the U.S. through improved legal assistance programs administered through Mexican consulates and reminded voters of her party’s efforts to expand credit to Mexicans of all social levels. Before the debate ended, she warned a vote for Peña Nieto or AMLO would mean a return of the old PRI guard—alluding to AMLO’s original party allegiance—and a vote for Quadri meant a vote for La Maestra, the powerful teacher’s union leader who created and unofficially runs the PANAL which formed an electoral alliance with the New Alliance party.

Quadri remained technical, offering very efficient and forward-looking solutions to many of Mexico’s challenges.  Along with the other candidates, he agreed that improved relations with the U.S. and trade pacts with China, India, Japan, Central America, and the rest of the world would improve Mexico’s economic prowess. His main weapon throughout the debate remained his labeling all opponents as failed career politicians who had no real solutions to Mexico’s problems. 

As the debate ended, polling firm GEA-ISA/Milenio placed Peña Nieto ahead of the pack with 44 percent of the vote, AMLO in second place with 28 percent and the Vázquez Mota with 24 percent. (Quadri has only grown from 1 percent to 3 percent support during his campaign.) The results are especially bad news for Vázquez Mota who has fallen to third place in five weeks, weakening the PAN’s national standing and potentially leaving it in an anemic state sure to cause internal power scuffles and possibly too frail to introduce or pass legislation in the national legislature.            

As the campaign winds down, Mexico continues to languish in a virtual no man’s land.  To its north lies the largest market for cocaine and methamphetamines, and to the south the most violent region in the world.  July’s winner will continue the government’s battle against organized crime and its various trades: extortion, kidnapping, human/organ trafficking and money laundering. 

There will be no honeymoon for this winner. The new administration will have to roll up its sleeves as soon as the candidate-elect takes the constitutional oath on December 1.  With luck, all political actors will come together under a unified agenda determined to build the kind of Mexico all candidates wish for.  

Juan Manuel Henao is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a consultant based in Mexico City and former Mexico Country Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington DC-based not-for-profit democracy promotion organization.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Mexico, Felipe Calderon, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Enrique Peña Nieto, Josefina Vázquez Mota

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