Mexico's presidential debate: Candidates faced easy questions as protesters filled streets

Candidates largely avoided attacking front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto in last night's final presidential debate, but the tens of thousands of students protesting his party beforehand did not.

Instituto Federal Electoral/REUTERS
Mexican presidential candidates take part in their second televised debate in Guadalajara, Mexico in this June 10 handout released by the Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE). Participating in the debate are (L to R) Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Gabriel Cuadri, Enrique Pena Nieto, and Josefina Vazquez Mota.

Back in May, during the first debate ahead of Mexico's July 1 presidential election, the clear frontrunner took the brunt of the attacks.

During Sunday night's second and final presidential debate, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who has been ahead in the polls since the race began, didn't have to dodge a lot of bullets. He wasn't attacked any more than the three other candidates.

In fact, his top rival, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, barely criticized Mr. Peña Nieto, or anyone else. Meanwhile his rival on the right, Josefina Vazquez Mota, spent her time attacking everyone equally, including the candidate on the fringes of the race, Gabriel Quadri, who has only about 2 percent of votes.

It was almost as if the debate's goal was not about trying to knock Peña Nieto from the top, but secure the second place slot. And so it is likely that Sunday night alone will do little to steer supporters away from Peña Nieto, point undecided voters in a clear direction, or shuffle up the statistics in any significant way. "A statistical tie," analysts declared during after-debate television programs.

The main criticism that Peña Nieto has had to contend with throughout the race is his party's past, as the authoritarian party that ruled Mexico for 71 years before finally getting edged out by Ms. Vazquez Mota's National Action Party (PAN). The theme surfaced again Sunday night – broached particularly by Vazquez Mota.

Peña Nieto has faced a dip in polling numbers as of late, but that's not directly due to maneuvers by the candidates. It's been because of outside factors, most notably a student movement that gained ground exactly a month ago today, opposing the comeback of the PRI.

As Peña Nieto's polling numbers have gone down since students took to the streets – those of Lopez Obrador's have gone up. Lopez Obrador almost won the presidential race in 2006 (he lost to President Felipe Calderon of the PAN, who is constitutionally barred from running again), and his biggest handicap has been his radicalization after losing that race. He refused to recognize the results and named himself the legitimate president of the country. He has also been painted as a “danger” to Mexico. Ahead of the 2006 race conservatives in the nation sought to paint him as Venezuela's radical Hugo Chavez.

But instead of attacking Peña Nieto, he presented himself as a statesman. He never once got riled. He never made a low blow. He named specifically who would be part of his cabinet before his time ran out. It was as if he was presenting himself as the frontrunner, said political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo, on the after-debate show on Canal 11, one of Mexico's most popular television stations.

It was Vazquez Mota who was on the attack. Perhaps the most entertaining moment of the debate was hers: she began asking the audience to imagine that she were running against three women. At first it seemed as if she were, once again, trying to rally the “woman vote,” but then she zinged each of the candidates. She said Mexicans will never know how Lopez Obrador will wake up, if he is feeling “loving” or not – a dig at his image makeover this election, which included calling for a “loving republic.” She also said Mr. Quadri as president would have to get advice from his "mother" every step of the way, a criticism of the support he has received from booster Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the teacher's union, who is largely perceived as one of the most corrupt actors in Mexican society.

Her attack mode was perceived by many users across Twitter as an attempt to steal the 2 percent of voters aligned with Quadri. More likely, her strategy was to use an attack tactic to at least get back into second place. Her party, the PAN, was cheered by Mexican society after the fall of the PRI in 2000, but her lagging campaign has shown Mexico's disillusionment with their rule over the past 12 years.

Quadri spent his time trying to drive the debate: he called upon the candidates to declare their stances on abortion and same-sex marriage, and tried to bring up  the role of China in Mexico. He was paid some attention, but not much.

But Peña Nieto, who has led the polls since the race officially began in March, didn't garner much more attention than Quadri did. He was instead left to repeat his stances on creating jobs, diminishing inequality, providing better security, efficiency, transparency, and the list goes on.

Anyone seeking a game-changing debate was sorely disappointed last night. But in stark contrast to the debate itself, tens of thousands of students took to the streets to protest the PRI yesterday, indicating that what happens off the airwaves and on the streets could deliver some major surprises – especially among the high number of undecided voters, many of whom are surely still undecided after last night.

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