By RICARDO CASTILLO
The stage is set, and all of Mexico is listening.
At the last minute, the country’s National Electoral Institute (INE) announced the format for the first debate among presidential hopefuls slated for the evening of this coming Sunday, April 22. The debate will be nationally broadcast on both radio and television.
The INE was forced to make shifts in the debate format because of the 11th-hour inclusion of independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez, who will ironically go first in terms of stating his programs. At least that’s what the INE organizers are hoping for because apparently what four of the five candidates have prepared is mud, rotten eggs and slime against the leader in the polls, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) political party.
The latest poll published by traditionally anti-AMLO conservative Mexico City newspaper Reforma was devastating to the four other candidates. It placed AMLO in the lead, with 48 percent of the voters’ preference, up 22 points from his nearest contender, Ricardo Anaya, trailed by the “official” government candidate José Antonio Meade Kuribreña. with a scant 18 percent.
Independent candidates Margarita Zavala and Jaime Rodriguez are at the bottom of the voters’ preference with 5 and 3 percent, respectively.
And another pollster, Mitofsky, made public on Thursday, April 19, what only came to confirm AMLO’s lead, placing him at 31.9 percent, with Anaya coming in second with 20.8 percent and President Peña Nieto’s candidate Meade Kuribreña at 16.9 percent. Both independents are below 5 percent.
But if that weren’t enough meat, tortillas and several types of hot sauce to make good tacos, the debate comes preceded with a week full of controversies that only add more hot chillie to the sauces.
Earlier this week, Mexico’s wealthiest man, Carlos Slim, held a press conference to question AMLO’s dogged attacks on the construction of the New International Mexico Airport (NAIM), in which Slim got the lion’s share of the construction contracts. AMLO has said those contracts are full of corruption and they ought to be audited, but Slim says that his companies are clean. Not only that, he called upon AMLO to lay off the airport since he is “only a candidate.”
After the Slim press conference, AMLO said that Slim was “Peña Nieto’s messenger,” which Slim later denied.
Adding enemies to AMLO’s lead was that of the Business Coordinating Council (CCE) president Pablo Castañón, who had a deal to study the airport contracts by three different teams, one representing the business community, another one from Morena party and a third by the government. Castañón dropped the plan without further explanation, just saying the CCE would not participate.
Another flash in the pan “scandal” (if it can be called that, although the Mexican press blew it out of proportion) was that AMLO, who has bashed Peña Nieto for flying in an 8 billion peso’ luxury jet (“we can’t allow a rich government in a poor nation,” he says), is going against his own words.
AMLO and his team were in Sonora where he rented an air taxi to make a 1,000-kilometer and 66,000 peso ride to his next stop on the road rally. Reporters acidly questioned him about the plane, but he just answered that he does not own a plane and explained that he’s been renting air taxies to fly long distances. Otherwise,he said, he travels by road.
Another fault AMLO was accused of having was for not having attended an event to sign and back an initiative proposed by over 300 childcare institutions called Pact for Early Infancy. The four underdogs attended and signed it, but AMLO did not pay heed to the project. He was stumping in Sonora. Therefore, claim his opponents, his absence only “proves he does not care for children.”
These and other issues will be at play in Sunday’s debate, where most definitely we will see a four- against-one ganging up.
The debate, which will be held in downtown Mexico City at Palacio de Minería, is the first of three face-offs. The second one will be in May in Tijuana, and the third in June in Mérida.
But it is out of this first debate that many things may happen. One of them is the “desperation” within President Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) over Meade’s lack of personality to attract voters. Hearsay has it that a flank in the PRI wants him replaced.
But let’s not jump the gun. Let’s wait for Monday, when we’ll have a full reaction on the results of the debate.