Mexican candidates debate as thousands protest front-runner
The four candidates for Mexico's presidency clashed late Sunday in a second televised debate as more than 90 000 people took to the streets of the capital to protest against the front-runner.
The verbal sparring match, held in Guadalajara, in the violence-torn state of Jalisco, could help decide the tight race with three weeks to go before the July 1 vote.
The top two rivals – Enrique Pena Nieto of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who lost by a narrow margin in 2006 – hoped to get a boost from the event that could take them over the top.
Both Pena Nieto and Lopez Obrador talked about the need to fight poverty, stimulate economic growth and recover Mexico's leading role in Latin America.
"There is a need for a new course that will translate into better living conditions for Mexicans," said the telegenic 45-year-old Pena Nieto, who now has a commanding lead with 43.6% support in polls to Lopez Obrador's 29.2%.
Meanwhile, Lopez Obrador urged his compatriots "to vote without fear for change".
The leftist leader blasted the current Mexican government, saying it was "rotten, past its expiration date," adding the country needed a decisive renewal.
For Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling center-right National Action Party (PAN) who is trailing with 25.3%, the debate offered her a last chance to score big in her quest to become Mexico's first woman president.
Gabriel Quadri of the tiny National Alliance Party trailed the rest of the pack with a miniscule 1.9%, the latest Mitofsky poll showed.
This debate "is the pull-out-all-the-stops point, and they are all risking it all to win big," said Jose Fernandez Santillan, a researcher at Monterrey's Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores (ITES).
Unlike a May 6 debate with a traditional format that allowed for very brief answers, this one let the candidates speak up to 8.5 minutes on several different subjects, the Federal Elections Board said.
The debate came at a critical time in the race, with just 20 days left before voters cast their ballots, and after weeks of student protests.
For weeks, students under the Yosoy132 ("I am the 132") youth movement have mobilized online and in the streets to slam favourable media coverage of Pena Nieto they say aims to make his win look inevitable, accusing the PRI candidate, who is married to an ex-soap opera star, of corruption.
The students cranked their campaign into high gear again Sunday, using social media to call supporters out to city squares to watch the debate, said Carlos Brito, a movement spokesman.
More than 90 000 movement supporters thronged the Zocalo, the capital's landmark main square, to rally against the PRI candidate. They were to march against Pena Nieto to the Angel of Independence monument.
And there were more student anti-Pena protests in at least five other cities around the country.
"You can see here that Pena will not be president," marchers chanted in a chaotic back-and-forth chorus.
Lopez Obrador, who was blamed for triggering a dramatic political stalemate when he contested his 2006 defeat, is now running as a moderate candidate.
With frustration growing against the PRI, some analysts think this middle-of-the-road approach could put him within reach of victory.
Nearly 80 million Mexicans are eligible to vote for a new president for a six-year term beginning in December, with the winner taking over from outgoing President Felipe Calderon, of the PAN.
The election will also renew the lower and upper houses of the Mexican Congress and select governors in six states, the Mexico City mayor and local legislative bodies.