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Gloves come off in presidential debate

May 12, 2012

The mudslinging has begun. Mexico’s presidential contenders traded stinging barbs but no one delivered a knockout blow in Sunday night’s live debate.

The man most likely to be Mexico’s next president may have spoken before the nation and engaged with his critics, but he is still a complete enigma. The knives were out from all sides for frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto, but he remains both opaque and on the verge of victory.

As the major candidates crossed swords, it was lesser known citizens’ candidate Gabriel Quadri who stole the limelight, topping most opinion polls for his composed and intelligent performance.

Unfortunately for Quadri this is unlikely to translate to a major share of the vote, due to the low profile of his New Alliance Party (PANAL) and its close ties to Elba Esther Gordillo, the controversial and largely unpopular teachers union leader.

The two-hour debate was moderated by journalist Guadalupe Juarez, whose awkward smile betrayed the simmering tension between the country’s political giants.

Each candidate was given questions on topics such as the economy, security, energy and education, with their rivals then allowed a chance to respond. Although rigidly controlled, the format allowed for greater discussion than last week’s tepid debate between Jalisco’s gubernatorial contenders.

Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) began the debate by slamming the last two administrations of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), which oversaw Mexico’s “worst economic performance in 80 years,” a rise in poverty and a huge wave of drug-related violence.

Peña Nieto avoided any major slip-ups, offering little of substance but spending most of his allocated time fending off attacks from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Josefina Vazquez Mota.

“They seem to have come to an agreement,” said the PRI candidate. “They’re coming with knives sharpened.”

Although ubiquitous on billboards, television and radio spots, Peña Nieto has limited his exposure to the press or rival candidates to a bare minimum, having made several high-profile gaffes late last year.

He enjoys a healthy lead in the polls, which also means he had the most to lose by appearing in the debates. Despite his opponents’ constant digs, Peña Nieto avoided any fatal damage to his carefully sculpted public image.

His biggest shortcoming was a failure to explain any policies beyond making vague generalizations. He offered grand aims but very few details of how he proposes to change Mexico.

In a performance sure to have solidified her support base, Vazquez Mota of the incumbent PAN mixed policy proposals with sustained attacks on Peña Nieto’s record as governor of the State of Mexico.

Vazquez Mota said the state had one of the country’s worst economic records under his administration and, brandishing a magazine article, accused Peña Nieto of lying about reducing homicide figures during his term in office.

“There are two ways of lying: one, not telling the truth and the other, making up statistics,” she said. There was much bickering over statistics throughout the debate, with Peña Nieto simply claiming her critiques were based upon false figures.

In one of the night’s most bitter exchanges, Vazquez Mota criticised the abmornally high femicide rate in the State of Mexico under Peña Nieto, and the lack of clarity surrounding the death of four-year-old Paulette Farah (a disabled girl from a wealthy family in Toluca whose disappearance in 2010 sparked an outpouring of sympathy across Mexico. She was found in her own bedroom days later, dead by asphyxiation, with her mother prime suspect, but the case was never solved). This prompted the former governor to accuse her of using the death of a little girl to revive her campaign.

Vying to become Mexico’s first female president, Vazquez Mota emphasized her role as the only woman in the race, while seeking to distance herself from President Felipe Calderon’s current government.

“I want to be president because I have the sensitivity, as a woman, to listen,” she said, repeatedly proclaiming herself as “different.”

Lopez Obrador, who leads a leftist coalition of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Labor Party (PT) and Citizen’s Movement, concentrated even less on the topics at hand and even more on savaging Peña Nieto.

The runner-up by a razor-thin margin in 2006’s controversial election, Lopez Obrador upset many moderate voters with months of disruptive protests in Mexico City, proclaiming himself the “legitimate president” in the aftermath of the disputed vote count.

The former mayor of Mexico City had sought to tone down his radical image and cultivate a more business-friendly persona this time around, but he showed his true colours in reverting to a more confrontational approach during the debate.

While many of his accusations were valid, Lopez Obrador ran the risk of alienating voters by banging the same old drum and failing to engage with the issues raised in the debate. He was more concerned with exposing Peña Nieto as a puppet of the authoritarian PRI elite who ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000.

“Why do the people who really control the country want Pena Nieto to be president?” he asked. “The answer is obvious… they want to continue with their policies of pillage.”

Lopez Obrador produced photographs of Peña Nieto with Arturo Montiel, a former governor of the state of Mexico whose whose career ended in accusations of corruption; and another with former President Carlos Salinas, whose rule was also dogged by charges of corruption and cronyism. The implication was clear: Peña Nieto may look young and handsome, but he is no different from the old PRI.

“This dominant group has privatized the government,” Lopez Obrador said. “Do you think things will get better if the PRI comes back? Let’s take a totally new path.”

The only candidate to stay out of the fray was Quadri, who earned newfound respect with direct answers and detailed policy proposals that seemed beyond his rivals’ capacities.

Representing a young and little-known party, Quadri lags way behind his opponents in the polls. With little need to engage in mudslinging, he was free to concentrate on the bigger picture and the problems facing Mexico.

More moderate and with less political baggage than Lopez Obrador, Quadri painted himself as a fresh alternative to the “politicians of old,” telling the audience, “you should vote with courage and freedom, the politicians must know that without you they are nothing. You have the opportunity to elect an honest and transparent citizen.”

Exasperated by the absence of meaningful proposals or intellectual debate from his opponents, Quadri added a hint of humor to the proceedings with the wry comment, “I’m glad everyone is copying my policies, this means we are making progress.”

Hitting the nail on the head, he added, “I wish my political colleagues would tell us how they plan to do things, because they all promise a lot of nice things … but they do not explain to us how they will achieve them.”

The sense of public apathy was compounded by the fact that several major TV networks opted to show a soccer match instead of the debate. Lopez Obrador alleged that Mexico’s powerful media bosses did not want to broadcast the debates to prevent voters from discovering “who Peña Nieto really is.”

With almost two months to go, it is unlikely the debate will have a major impact on the July 1 election, although a second debate scheduled for June 10 in Guadalajara could prove more decisive.

Busty ‘bunny’ kicks up post-debate fuss

In what could be taken as damning evidence of the audience’s lack of interest in their candidates, one of the most discussed moments of the presidential debate – especially on on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook – was the fleeting (19-second) appearance of former Playboy bunny Julia Orayen, who distributed cards determining the order in which candidates would speak.  Her not-so-demure attire raised many eyebrows and prompted a subsequent apology from the Federal Electoral Institute.

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