By RICARDO CASTILLO
The one sentence that pops out of the first Mexican presidential debate on the evening of last Sunday, April 22, was from the oldest of the candidates, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was forecast in my Pulse News Mexico column last week:
“You’re ganging up on me” he told the other four presidential hopefuls. (“Me están echando montón” to use AMLO’s Spanish language vernacular.) AMLO, who took more flack in this debate than any other candidate in Mexico’s short history of debates. (The practice started in Mexico when the first presidential candidate debate was held back in 1994).
Indeed, they did! During the two hours the debate lasted the awesome foursome composed of candidates Ricardo Anaya, José Antonio Meade, Jaime Rodríguez and Margarita Zavala over and over again mentioned AMLO’s political and ideological defects and faults to the point that the most repeated words during the debate were “Andrés Manuel.”
As I pointed out in this space last week, the reason for the onslaughts on AMLO was obvious. AMLO is ahead in the polls by as much as 22 percent over second fiddle Ricardo Anaya, and more than 30 percent over José Antonio Meade.
But still, AMLO held his breath, contained his often hot temper and most pollsters agree that, even though he may not have gained electoral ground, he did not lose it either. He’s expected, when the first polls on the debate are released later this week, to still be in the lead, and if the elections were held today, he would win by a landslide.
But the debate was not supposed to be about AMLO’s personality but the issues of government corruption in Mexico, options to clamp down on the soaring wave of criminality beleaguering the nation, and ways to “pacify” the nation, which all agree is under the attack from organized criminal gangs.
Each of the candidates stated their case and they differed broadly.
Jaime Rodríguez, best known as “El Bronco,” the “illegal candidate” who was included in the register by the National Electoral Institute (INE) on a last minute basis on orders from the Electoral Tribunal, grabbed the attention with some perhaps not fresh but unusual proposals.
Last week I wrote that when he was admitted as candidate, in “the finest jihadist manner,” he had exclaimed, “God is great.” Perhaps I was not far from the mark because, during the debate, he proposed that the manner of punishing thieves – be they government officials or common thieves – was “chopping off their hand.” At first, everyone thought it was a metaphor as the old Muslim punishment for thieves does not exist in Mexican laws, but when asked by one of the debate moderators about what he meant ,“El Bronco” made it clear he meant it literally. It would seem that Rodríguez would want to install a caliphate in Mexico. Oh my Allah!
God’s name was not absent on the lips of other candidates. For instance, AMLO proposed having a referendum every two years of his mandate in order to see if the president’s performance is approved or not. “What the people giveth,the people can take away,” AMLO said. Anaya and El Bronco backed the idea, but Anaya questioned the way the vote count would be carried out since he would not allow it to be conducted by a just raise-your-hand count. José Antonio Meade rejected the idea and said that the midterm elections were the best gauge for how the people feel, but holding a referendum every two years “for the love of God, no.”
Margarita Zavala, the only woman in the ticket, was eyed by pollsters as the big loser of the debate. Not so much because she’s a woman or because her proposals don’t make sense — which they don’t — but because of the heavy ballast her husband, former president Felipe Calderón, means for her candidacy. All other candidates blamed Calderón for unleashing the “war on crime” which, all agree, beheaded criminal organizations without dismantling them, favoring their reorganization and gain in territorial control and which seriously and dangerously challenged the government’s authority, starting in 2006, when Calderón took office, and continuing up to today, during President Enrique Peña Nieto’s shift.
In fact, much time was spent criticizing AMLO for proposing some sort of amnesty for criminals. The other four candidates questioned the wisdom of pardoning criminals, but in the end, AMLO accused them of being “ill intentioned” in interpreting what he meant with his proposal.
“Amnesty does not mean impunity,” he said. “For a long time, this has been interpreted as that I want to release from jail all criminals who have committed illicit actions. When our movement triumphs (by winning the election), I am going to summon experts to jointly define how to carry out an amnesty program. I have even invited Pope Paul to participate in it.”
Anaya, who for many observers was “the winner” of this first debate, disagreed and proposed “dismantling the mafias, not just beheading them” and continuing to use the Navy and the Army as police. Again, he lashed out at AMLO, questioning “answer, yes or no, amnesty to pardon criminals? Yes or no?” AMLO did not take the bait and did not answer.
Meade blamed AMLO (over and over again) for the nation’s woes and recalled that his wife, Juana,was mugged twice when López Obrador was Mexico City mayor (2000-2005.)
El Bronco Rodríguez said that “we’re not ganging up on you, Andrés. But you say such barbarities and they have to be questioned. Are you also summoning drug traffickers?” Again, AMLO stayed mum.
Meade, who is seen by pollsters and some pundits as “the big loser” of the debate, kept on hammering throughout about AMLO’s defects and faults and forgot about making proposals, falling into a tactic that denounced him as a true greenhorn in electoral politics, which, of course, Meade himself is.
One of the moderators, Sergio Sarmiento, questioned AMLO, who had said that he is not competing for the president’s post.
“This is your third time as candidate for president. If not for the post, what are you competing for?”
“It’s not for the post,” AMLO replied, “but for leading a movement of millions of voters to transform Mexico.”
“Would you admit defeat?” Sarmiento queried, since, in 2006, AMLO took Mexico City’s Reforma Avenue during three months of protest against what he called electoral fraud.
“Of course yes,” AMLO said. “In democracy, you win or you lose, but what we seek is that there is no vote purchasing, fraud, because the mobsters in power (led by Peña Nieto) are experts in trickery.”
As for the debate format, it was agile and even entertaining, featuring three mediators marking the timing, which was strict without cutting short the talkative contenders.
In the end, the four contenders reached their objective of pummeling AMLO live and in person, but in the end, it is most foreseeable that with slight variants, AMLO will continue at the forefront in the current polls for voters’ preference for the next president of Mexico.