The Second Presidential Debate: The More Things Change …

May 23, 2018 By 0 Comments

The second presidential debate took place in Tijuana on Sunday, May 20th. Significantly more viewers tuned in as compared the first debate, either via television (12.6 million) or YouTube (13 million), and another couple of million through Facebook and Twitter. The big outcome was that…nothing much really happened, save a much more combative and agenda-setting performance by the leading candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. With Margarita Zavala dropping out of the presidential race days before the debate, we were left with a narrowing group of contenders. Two days before the debate, an IPSOS presidential poll put AMLO at 43%, Ricardo Anaya at 24%, Jose Antonio Meade at 16% and trailing far behind, the independent candidate, Jaime Rodríguez at 2%. And according to a post-debate poll by De Las Heras Demotecnia, AMLO emerged as the winner by 27% to 19% over Anaya, with only 8% of viewers changing their minds.

With AMLO so far ahead, it was not surprising that the other candidates essentially played to his agenda. Longer-term numbers will take a bit longer, but AMLO’s supporters were definitely buoyed by his feistiness this time around, and Anaya’s strong performance should secure him second place – although there are good reasons to think that he may not be able to hold on to his current position given the trail of corruption charges which are still dogging his campaign.

The novel element in the debate format this time was that a studio audience of ordinary people was able to participate in the questioning. And, it must be said, the moderators did a far better job than in the first debate of forcing the candidates to answer the questions posed and pressing them with follow-ups. Predictably, Jaime Rodríguez led with the most attacks, most of them against López Obrador, followed by Anaya. Much to the delight of AMLO supporters, their candidate did not just stand there like a lamp post when attacked as in the first debate. He even managed to get off a couple of clever – if not particularly political – personal attacks on Anaya, taking out his wallet when the PAN candidate neared his podium as if he were about to be robbed and later comparing him to the cartoon character Richie Rich.

Not surprisingly, in Tijuana which sits up against the American frontier, the major topics under discussion were Mexican-American relations, external trade, the plight of migrants both Mexican and Central American, violence and human rights. These are vital issues in the election. However, there simply was not a lot of open ground separating the candidates on any of these issues. All of the candidates supported – with some important qualifications – the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. However, only AMLO and Anaya agreed with Trump’s proposal to raise Mexican wages to make them competitive with those in the US and Canada.

On the question of migrant rights, both within Mexico and in the United States, all of the candidates were forceful in taking the side of the migrants. It would have been political suicide not to have done so. All candidates rightly condemned the brutal tactics of American border security services with respect to deportations and all condemned Trump’s plans for a new border wall. Ricardo Anaya tried to take the high ground by claiming that he and only he would actually give returning migrants a voice in the Mexican Congress, though his proposal was decidedly short on details. AMLO promised to make Mexican consulates throughout the US much more proactive in their support of migrants, which at least has the merit of connecting with an already existing migrant-solidarity movement in the US in the form of sanctuary cities. He also proposed moving the headquarters of the National Institute of Migration to Tijuana, which sounded interesting, if a bit unexciting, given the dire situation being faced by migrants. As the director of the migrants’ shelter Casa del migrante in Tijuana, Gilberto Martínez Amaya, told us in an interview, it would make much more sense to move the COMAR– the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance – to the border rather than the immigration institute.

The tilt toward AMLO’s program did produce some bizarre moments, as when Jaime Rodriguez called for the expropriation of Banamex – something AMLO has studiously avoided. Or when AMLO extolled the virtues of reasoned dialogue with Trump, while Anaya called for including migrants in bilateral negotiations with the US, even threatening to suspend cooperation between the two nations over the issue. Like his proposal to give migrants a voice in Congress, this is something he never proposed while he was in charge of the PAN’s legislative agenda between 2012 and 2015. In other words, the grasping of a desperate man.