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Frontrunner untroubled in final debate

June 11, 2012

Having recently slipped into third place in the polls, Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party (PAN) came out swinging in Mexico’s second presidential debate at the Expo Guadalajara on Sunday.

Most commentators adjudged Vazquez Mota to have performed best in the debate, but with less than three weeks to go this is unlikely to change the outcome of the July 1 election. At best, the boost might help her reclaim second place from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

After relentlessly attacking frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) throughout the first debate, Lopez Obrador adopted a less confrontational approach this time around, opting to focus more on policies.

Eliminating corruption is the primary task facing Mexico’s next president, he said, claiming this could result in savings of 300 billion pesos. Lopez Obrador also said he would increase economic growth from four to six percent, albeit without explaining exactly how he would do so. All in all it was a somewhat underwhelming performance from the leftist veteran.

With little to gain and much to lose, Peña Nieto was unmemorable but solid. Wisely choosing to stay out of the fray, he came through unscathed, with little or no damage done to his profile or his lead in the polls.

Among his proposals, Peña Nieto said he would streamline Congress by eliminating 32 senators and 100 federal deputies. While the PRI has blocked most reforms proposed by the current PAN government, such a move would make it easier for Peña Nieto to pass legislation should he become president.

The debate was centered on three topics: politics and government; Mexico in the world (an area largely ignored by most of the candidates); and social and sustainable development. Surprisingly, New Alliance Party (PANAL) candidate Gabriel Quadri set much of the agenda, obliging his opponents to state their views on hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion, while also proposing a free trade agreement with China.

As in the first debate, Quadri was articulate and charismatic, but he suffered when Vazquez Mota called him out as a pawn of Elba Esther Gordillo, controversial leader of the National Educational Workers Union (SNTE) that created the PANAL.

Vazquez Mota was the most aggressive participant throughout, but the squabbles between her and Quadri suited Peña Nieto just fine, as he simply sought to protect his position as frontrunner.

With Lopez Obrador uncharacteristically tame, the fiercest opposition to Peña Nieto came from outside the venue, where student demonstrators from the #YoSoy132 movement vented their anger at the PRI candidate.

Throughout the afternoon 3,000 to 5,000 young people took part in several #YoSoy132 marches across the city, converging before the debate at the Parque de las Estrellas beside the Expo. To ensure the protests did not get out of hand there was a strong security presence, with hundreds of soldiers, police and even members of the Presidential Guard on duty.

None of the candidates made direct reference to the grassroots movement that has sprung up over the past month, although Vazquez Mota noted that “today students can protest without fear of an authoritarian government,” before evoking the massacres of student demonstrators under the PRI in 1968 and 1971.

Vazquez Mota also mocked Peña Nieto for “hiding in the bathroom” after he was heckled by students during a recent appearance at the Universidad Iberoamericana.

After the debate, the three main candidates united with local representatives of their respective parties at landmarks across the city

Peña Nieto appeared downtown before around 2,000 PRI supporters, while Vazquez Mota held a rally on the Matute Remus suspension bridge at Lopez Mateos and Lazaro Cardenas. Having laid out 10,000 seats, the PAN only managed to attract 2,000 people, while upsetting locals by seriously disrupting traffic for hours.

The biggest rally was that staged between Los Arcos and the Minerva glorieta by Lopez Obrador and Enrique Alfaro, the Citizen’s Movement candidate for governor of Jalisco.

The pair drew around 6,500 enthusiastic supporters and the mood was festive, with Alfaro drawing plaudits for a strong performance in Sunday morning’s gubernatorial debate at the Expo.

Having failed to mention the #YoSoy132 movement in the debate, Lopez Obrador now paid tribute to Mexico’s youths, saying they were “fundamental” to “increasing our chances of winning.”

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