The 1st Mexican presidential “debate” of 2012

The run-up to last night’s debate was overshadowed by two main issues: the controversy over which channels would air the debate, and that this is only one of two debates that will take place during the campaign.

Televisa and TV Azteca, the two major television channels, did not want to air the debate since they already had other programming scheduled. In the face of this refusal to air the debate, The IFE (Federal Electoral Institute) caved as they usually do and voted against forcing all the channels to air the debate. In the end, TV Azteca did not air the debate on their two channels, and Televisa only aired it on one of their 5 channels. The debate was also available on public television.

The IFE is responsible for organizing two debates during the campaign, in which the candidates are required to participate. However, other media outlets have attempted and failed to organize additional debates since the front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), has refused to participate in any other debates. EPN’s decision to avoid any unnecessary debating makes strategic sense, since he is already ahead in the polls by around 20 points, and gains little from additional public appearances. And, since he has already demonstrated that he can’t think on his feet, and will likely embarrass himself if he deviates from the campaign script, his campaign managers are doing everything they can to keep him away from the media.

The debate itself was not really what most people would consider a “debate.” The IFE publicly released the questions on Saturday ensuring the candidates wouldn’t be stumped by any question read by the moderator. The format largely precluded any real debate between candidates, although there were a number of attempts by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (PRD) and Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN) to criticize Peña Nieto. For each question, one candidate was given 2 minutes to answer, then the other three candidates were given 90 seconds to give their answers to the question, followed by a reply from the original candidate. The candidate who was allowed to answer first rotated throughout the evening. This format provided for a fairly unintelligible “debate” as JVM and AMLO used much of their time to attack EPN and either ignore the question or provide a short ambiguous response, while EPN responded to attacks against himself and launched his own attacks against AMLO and JVM, while providing little in the way of concrete responses to the questions. Instead, the debate functioned more like a series of unconnected short speeches from each candidate, with responses to attacks coming several minutes after the criticism was launched and other candidates speaking in-between. The three major candidates largely ignored Gabriel Quadri de la Torre (Nueva Alianza) throughout the debate, while Qaudri tried to project himself as the “citizen” candidate, different from the other three politicos.

So how did the candidates perform? Overall, the mediocrity of all four candidates, their lack of innovative ideas and lack of charisma was the big takeaway from the debate. All candidates used props of pictures, newspaper articles, and graphs that were impossible to see on television, did not keep their comments within the established time limits and were thus cut off mid-sentence many times, and largely failed to answer the moderator’s questions. In terms of ideas, viewers heard a lot about increasing economic competition, ending corruption, and reducing poverty in very generic terms. Since I can’t imagine any politician being against competition, or pro-corruption and pro-poverty, all the blustering from the candidates on these issues communicated no information to viewers and voters, and was largely a waste of time.

Regarding security, all four candidates support the creation of a national police force. Since Calderón also has advocated this for several years, it wasn’t clear from the debate how any of these candidates differed on security policy from the sitting president, and why a national police force hasn’t already been created if no one disagrees with it. For the paltry two questions on security and justice, López Obrador largely ignored the questions. Quadri and Peña Nieto both advocated for more private investment in the prison system. How this will solve some of the major security issues in Mexico today is anyone’s guess. In general, on one the major issues facing Mexico today, it was largely impossible to distinguish differences among the four candidates.

Peña Nieto probably had the most to lose in this debate since he is a poor speaker, his campaign is largely devoid of ideas, and faced the brunt of the attacks during the debate. While he came off as a little unsure, and spoke in vague generalities, he seemed to perform well enough (and better than expected) to avoid damaging his commanding lead in the polls. The one highlight from the debate was his proposal for universal social security for all Mexicans. It would have been nice if he had elaborated how this would actually work or be implemented.

López Obrador was the biggest disappointment during the debate. His 2012 campaign has been much more positive and less combative than his 2006 campaign, so I was expecting a more positive AMLO during the debate with some more focus on ideas and policies. However, most of his comments were restricted to the supposed mafia that controls Mexico (although he didn’t actually use the word “mafia,” the discourse was the same), and the elusive “they” that prevented him from winning in 2006 and is now backing Peña Nieto. Ignoring the questions and talking in vague generalities about the powers-that-be that supposedly control everything in Mexico made him come off like some crackpot conspiracy theorist. Even on a question regarding how he would combat poverty, an issue on which the left and AMLO should have fairly strong and coherent positions, López Obrador ignored the question.

Vázquez Mota came off as monotone, robotic, and way too scripted, and spent much of her time attacking Peña Nieto. Despite her seemingly impressive record on paper as PAN party leader in the Chamber of Deputies, former Minister of Social Development and former Minister of Education, she had little to say about her accomplishments. On a question about education, she didn’t even mention education in her response, although did attempt to correct her mistake several minutes later after the topic had turned to the environment and sustainable development.

Gabriel Quadri was the biggest surprise of the debate. He was well prepared, answered the questions, and was the most focused on policy throughout the debate. His proposal for a neoliberal “revolution” in Mexico is unlikely to inspire much in the way of support, nevermind the fact that his party, Nueva Alianza, has no chance of winning, but I at least admire his ability to stick to the issues. The fact that he looks like he is wearing these all the time probably doesn’t help.

Probably the only memorable instance during the debate that viewers will remember was the use of a Playboy model to hand out cards to each candidate at the beginning of the debate to determine the order of response. Way to go IFE, very classy.

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