The 2nd Mexican Presidential Debate, May 20, 2018: a few impressions

By Carlos B. Gil

Summary: The 2nd presidential debate took place May 20th as a harbinger of Mexico’s coming elections, July 1st. The debate was superbly organized by a national election agency responsible for good and fair elections without the multi-millions of dollars that we spend in the United States. The candidates and their political organizations mirror the deep disenchantment that Mexican voters hold for their politicians and their political parties. The candidates represent an intriguing spectrum of politicians willing to take on a big load.

What does this mean for us, in the United States? The front runner, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (“AMLO”) has stayed ahead by saying little. His performance in the debate was dull; all he did was to repeat his two warnings: 1) I’m going to end corruption in Mexico, and 2) I’m going to deal firmly with our long standing “political mafia.” He’s an old leftist, everybody says, and his track record with the business sector has been frosty. He claims to be a nationalist (“Mexico First!” — you’ve heard that before from Mr. Trump) and if our own president up-scales deporting undocumented Mexicans in some dramatic way or another, it’ll be interesting to see how AMLO responds. The two men are similar in many ways.

More than 6 million Facebook users watched the 2nd Mexican presidential debate which took place in Tijuana, Baja California, Sunday evening, May 20, 2018.[1] I was able to see it on YouTube from my home in Seattle and, given my lifelong interest in the country of my ancestors, I share my observations here.

Yes, Mexicans go to the polls to vote for their next president soon, this coming July 1st, to be exact. They exercise this right, which is also an obligation, every 6 years, and so, as with us, 2018 looms as a very important election year


The debate was organized by the INE, an independent Mexican agency responsible for fraud-free elections uncontaminated by private, partisan money (doesn’t that sound wonderful?).

The INE defined the debate themes as follows: for the 1st debate (April 22nd), the role of government, politics, and human rights; for the 2nd debate (May 20th) foreign affairs, commerce and migration; and for the 3rd (June 12th) poverty, inequality and the economy. I missed the 1st debate.

My general impressions about the debate as a whole

My overall impression of the 2-hour debate in Tijuana is that it proceeded remarkably well. It was efficiently organized and carried out by two excellent moderators, Yuriria Sierra and León Krauze, who, in my view, performed better than any of our own recent presidential debate moderators because they really dug in with hard follow up questions and they commanded the proceedings effectively. The candidates yielded to them too

Also, Krauze openly recognized, at the beginning, that the 2nd debate represented a lesson learned from us, in the U.S., not only by placing the top four candidates in front of television cameras but also by inviting ordinary citizens to ask the candidates their own questions. This was a jolly good first.

The debate exposed several issues that caught my attention. For example, NAFTA arose as one of the biggest concerns to the citizens invited to the debate, the free trade agreement that Mexico signed with the U.S. and Canada in 1994. Personal security, in the face of drug trafficking violence, especially in some border cities, received attention as well. In my view, the candidates didn’t do it justice and one of them, hardly mentioned it.

All four candidates recognized the vexatious role that Donald Trump has scripted for himself and the challenge he represents for Mexico. Three of the candidates pointedly referred to his boorish anti-Mexican stance and one of them even read a passage from a Trump biography describing our president’s practice of aggressively squashing disagreement or dissent.

That the debate took place in the City of Tijuana was a virtuous idea because northerly migrant flows inevitably arrive at borders cities like Tijuana and thus become challenges for local officials and residents.

Here are the four candidates

Here are the four candidates who took part in the debate, followed by my own brief assessment of each, and a quick commentary on their performance in the debate. The list almost included a woman: Margarita Zavala, wife of an ex-president, ran as an independent candidate but pulled out a few days ahead of the 2nd debate. I list the four contenders in the order of their rankings by national polls.

A note about their parties: None of the candidates are representing a main line party. Three of them are backed by a coalition of parties, and two of them are running against parties they once belonged to. One of the candidates is representing, in his coalition, two mainline parties that have been opposed historically over the last twenty years. Go figure!

The reason for this political mishmash is that Mexico’s traditional parties (the PRI, the PAN, and the PRD[2]) have lost a significant amount of credibility among voters, and so the candidates obviously felt obligated to mix and match to be able to go on with their campaigns. This loss of credibility explains a lot of the cynicism and sarcasm mentioned above. Another reason is the survival of diminutive parties (like the PT[3]) that only gain barely enough votes to stay afloat, and so they find it necessary to attach themselves to other candidates or political groups.

The bottom line is that the old party system has suffered a good deal of disapproval from the average Mexican voter, and Enrique Peña Ñieto, the outgoing president, didn’t help matters much.


Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Word to the wise: most Mexicans use compound surnames; in this case, López is the patronymic and Obrador is the matronymic). At 65 years of age, AMLO, as he is referred to in the media, has been leading the pack in this election. He’s from Tabasco, one of the poorer states in the nation, largely agrarian, never having produced a national presidential candidate, until now. He attended the local university and later transferred to the UNAM[4], Mexico’s big national university where it took him 14 years to complete his degree.[5]

López Obrador has switched parties and changed his political identity several times. He recently created his own “party” which is a super amalgam of a previous confederation of organizations known as MORENA[6], plus at least two more political groups. Most observers describe him, as I do: a canny, old fashioned Mexican leftist who nips and tucks politically to stay afloat. This will be the third time he runs for the presidency. He has been a government employee or an elected official nearly all his life. He served as governor of Tabasco and mayor of Mexico City and his accomplishments are reported as ambiguous.

His rise in popularity, I believe, is directly related to the rejection of the nation’s political leaders and their parties by Mexican voters. His one-message mantra, “I will eliminate corruption,” has resonated widely. Mexicans are fed up with the average politician who makes promises at the beginning and then simply sits back, once in office, to enjoy the high salaries, big cars and other perks. Corruption is the key word, and AMLO utters it every time he opens his mouth, in vague and simple language. I’ve talked with Mexicans who instinctively trust him and dismiss his ambiguity.

In the Tijuana debate he refused to be specific about anything, confident that he was on a roll. All he did was to repeat his ambivalent promise to end corruption. He repetitively blames the nation’s ill on the “political mafia,” personified, as far as he is concerned, by his competitors, Meade and Anaya, as mentioned below. His track record with the business sector has not been friendly–after all, he’s an old leftist. That’s going to be a big challenge for everyone.

Except for a more relaxed personality, he reminds me too much of Donald Trump in his vagueness, and in making all-purpose promises. Many call him a populist; his mayorship of Mexico City certainly indicates that. In my view Mexican voters ought to retire him. I do not believe he will be good for Mexico.

Ricardo Anaya

Ricardo Anaya Cortes. In mid-May he occupied second place in the polls, but quite far back in numbers, behind AMLO. He is the youngest, at 39, and he is a new political figure, claiming Querétaro as his home state, an industrial behemoth, just due north of Mexico City.

Different from AMLO who abandoned two main-line parties years ago (the PRI and the PRD), Anaya is most identified with the PAN, Mexico’s so-called “conservative” party, and served as its president recently. He exudes the well-healed, college-oriented, religious-minded families that gave strength to Mexico’s pro-Catholic political movement that eventually became the PAN. He excelled in school, all the way to a Ph.D., entering government service in his home state, and received mentoring from influential party leaders. In Mexican terms, one could say that he comes from a brahmin background, and this may be one of the reasons why AMLO seems repulsed by his presence (the feeling seems mutual). Nevertheless, his hard work and his fast-learning propelled him to the top where he is today. His colleagues consider him a whizz kid.

His role in the debate, I thought, was the best because he was specific in terms of what he would do in the areas covered by the debate. In articulate terms he said, among other things, he would raise the minimum wage, give poor people tax exemptions, find ways to stop the transfer of arms across the border, and search for ways to reintegrate Mexicans who are deported or otherwise reverted to Mexico, and so on.

Unfortunately, the animus he holds with AMLO, and visa-versa, obscured the practical assessment of his debate performance in the media afterwards; many reporters focused on the carping back and forth. I don’t think his loss in this election he will diminish his national role.

Jose Antonio Meade

José Antonio Meade Kuribreña. Meade, 49, is the candidate flying the PRI banner in this election, Mexico’s historic “official party,” the party that ruled for over 60 years This is a curious note because he has not been a bonified PRI member. The PRI drafted him in 2017 despite his nonpartisan identity to which he held on for a long time. Why the PRI decided to look for a candidate beyond its own kennel should serve as a juicy bit of political gossip.

Meade, reportedly of Irish and Lebanese origin, is the closest thing in this election to the controversial “technocrats” of the 1980s, meaning the no-nonsense professionals borrowed from their non-political jobs (usually an economist or an engineer) to do government work, as opposed to career politicians. Born in the nation’s capital-city-megalopolis, Meade too could be described as a brahmin, like Anaya above, having enjoyed a well-heeled upbringing by professional parents and undoubtedly familiar with posh country clubs. You can tell just by looking at the guy.

This may be part of the reason why AMLO refers to him too, in addition to Anaya, as belonging to the “political mafia.” (The enmity between the candidate from Tabasco and Anaya and Meade sounds to me more a like class- and race-based resentment, which it might very well be, especially when you consider educational backgrounds. This is not unusual in Mexico.)

Like Anaya, Meade also earned a Ph.D. abroad. He obtained it from non-other than Yale University! This is one of our elitist universities. He also earned two professional degrees from top Mexican universities, the UNAM, and the ITAM[7], the latter being Mexico’s most influential school of economics and finance. He’s got kudos, no doubt! With these diplomas, he went right to the top (Minister of Budgeting and Finance, for example). Having opened the door to very heady government circles, he worked both for the PAN and for the PRI. He has been presented as the least partisan-minded candidate.

His performance in the 2d debate was equal to Ricardo Anaya’s act. He was up to snuff on every issue discussed and he offered well-informed specifics, like combating drug trafficking and gun-smuggling across the U.S.-Mexican border with a powerfully organized border and customs force, he recognized the existence of economic inequality in Mexico and offered a crash investment program for the poorer states in the south, etc.

The PRI works as an advantage for him and his handicap too. It’s a benefit because it is the most powerful party in terms of experience, manpower and financing. It’s a handicap because it comes with the heaviest moral baggage. The nation can blame it for most of its ills, along with its accomplishments, of course, but government corruption and unbelievable blunders, past and present, dis-empower it. Outgoing Enrique Peña Ñieto’s administration exemplifies this very well: it approved some sorely needed reforms at the beginning of his term but began limping with the hard-to-believe-outright disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero. Its inability to curb the drug cartels from murdering each other out in the open made matters worse.

El Bronco Rodriguez

Jaime Heliodoro Rodríguez Calderón (“El Bronco”). Rodriguez’s nickname basically says it all: wild bronc. At 60, he is independent minded, brash, and straight-talking, in a Mexican cowboy sort of way, a true ranchero. He’s a northerner from Nuevo León; like we would say, a westerner. Dirt poor, one of ten children, a local merchant discovered him and paid for his college. He worked hard, breaking molds left and right, leading his classmates to support scholarships for poor students like himself. No other presidential candidate in the 20th century rises from a humble background like he does; AMLO may come close. None come close to Benito Juarez in the mid-1800s who rose from his Indian origins to become Mexico’s most famous president. AMLO likes to compare himself to Juarez.

Benito Juarez

Because it rides the pathway to the Texas border, Nuevo León was overrun by aggressive and murderous drug cartels circa 2012, so when El Bronco ran for mayor locally he hardened his view on how to quell them. The drug criminals retaliated; they wanted him dead. He stood up to them, and to corrupt local politicians too, when he competed for governor as an independent. He won, a truly exceptional feat; a historical first for Mexico. Against all Mexican political conventions, he has called for the adoption of capital punishment, and the chopping of hands for corrupt politicians too!

He is running for president as an independent in 2018, a first, once again, and he does not enjoy party support nor financing, other than the resources INE provides. He courageously accepts derisive disapproval from many people, even from haughty reporters on main line TV networks, like Televisa.[8] He gets dismissed not only for what he claims he would do about corruption and drug trafficking but also for his style, his speech, and his manner. Some of his solutions for social and economic problems sound ingenuous. He exudes the man-of-the-street, without a doubt, and he is last in the polls too.

His performance in the debate didn’t increase his chances of gaining supporters even though he revealed intimate knowledge of, and sympathy for, Mexico’s marginalized population. He stood as the odd man out.

What’s the bottom line? Answer: the candidate who performed the worst in the 2nd debate is way ahead in the polls. Does that make any sense? Did our own presidential election make any sense?

Go figure!  Or, as Mexicans would say, ve tu a saber!

A caveat about me and this article.

While I expect mostly Americans will read this article, there may be some Mexicans who might happen upon it, so I offer the following caveat: I don’t live and breathe in Mexico’s political atmosphere nor have I suffered personal losses of any kind resulting from Mexican political relationships, and so I can see the possibility that my comments may ring shallow to some of these folks. I strive for the fewest possible words here, so this may add to the problem.

I do expect that my views will fall far from the harsh sarcasm that some Mexicans cynically toss at their political system, and I, of course, don’t question that. I know enough about Mexican politics, past and present, to say that the naysayers surely have their reasons to feel as they might. Thirty or so years ago, the government didn’t like critics and some of these cynics may hold a bad memory of those days, but things have changed considerably. In any case, I, a Mexican American who has studied Mexico for many years and lived there in the past, offer my remarks for what they may be worth.

[1] El Economista, May 21, 2018.

[2] PRI = Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party) also known as the “official party.”

PAN = Partido de Acción Nacional (National Action Party), known as the “conservative” party, strongly pro-Catholic Church in the beginning.

PRD = Partido Revolucionario Democratico (Revolutionary Democratic Party), the main leftist party.

[3] PT – Partido del Trabajo (The Labor Party), a small, leftist organization.

[4] UNAM = Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Mexico’s leading institution of higher learning.

[5] Contraste: El arte de comunicar,

[6] MORENA = Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (National Regeneration Movement).

[7] ITAM = Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico).

[8] Animal Político, September 12, 2016.

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