Mexico's second presidential debate ended with a weak showing from the leading candidate. While leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador still has a lead of 20 percentage points, other candidates could be allying to stop his advance.

On Sunday, the four remaining candidates for the July 1 Mexican presidential elections gathered to duel in Tijuana in the second to last debate of the campaign. 

While current front runner, leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – commonly referred to as AMLO – is credited with a sizeable lead in recent opinion polls, it would still be premature to herald him as the likely future president. AMLO is riding a populist wave and is viewed by many as an outside alternative to established political forces.

After two unsuccessful bids, AMLO boasted confidently that his time had come. Yet, he only clumsily deflected the regular attacks of his two main opponents, be it on the security front from Jose Antonio Meade of the incumbent PRI party, or on his questionable economic successes as mayor of Mexico City from the PAN party candidate, Ricardo Anaya, who has managed to gather support from both the centre-left and the right-wing of Mexican politics.

Anaya now clearly appears to be AMLO’s strongest rival and both recent events and the structure of the electoral system in Mexico could play in his favour. Indeed, the recent defection of the fifth candidate to the race, Margarita Zavala, the wife of former President Felipe Calderon, reduces the scattering of votes of Anaya’s supporters. If Zavala is yet to endorse Anaya, her former husband was an historical figure of the PAN and her candidacy hampered Anaya’s chances.

Similarly, the fact that the next Mexican president will be decided in a single round ballot should encourage voters to concentrate their vote under Anaya’s name in the hope of preventing AMLO’s election. In a recent Reforma poll, 60 percent of respondents voiced that Anaya had the best chance to beat AMLO as opposed to 20 percent for Meade. Anaya’s recent signs of inclusiveness towards PRI voters is to be interpreted as part of an anti-AMLO coalition building strategy

 On Sunday, both Meade and Anaya took regular jabs at AMLO. While the first debate had focused on issues of security and corruption plaguing the country, the second opus addressed mainly economic policies and the position towards the United States. The recent new wave of derogatory comments from the American President towards Mexican immigrants, and the country in general, were discussed at length with all candidates calling for an assertive posture towards the US.

Mexican foreign policy towards its northern neighbor has always been an important dimension of presidential campaigns in the country. The level of trade between both countries, its relative weight on the Mexican economy and the large emigrating population across the Rio Grande easily explain the focus on bilateral talks. But the never-ending renegotiation of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the personality of Donald Trump have only reinforced the centrality of the issue in the mind of Mexican voters.

Standing up to Trump has become a matter of national pride in Mexico and the decision from current president Pena Nieto (PRI) to invite Trump two years ago for an official visit during his campaign remains a hefty handicap for Jose Antonio Meade.

When Meade tried to defend a decision that according to him saved NAFTA, Ayala had the luxury of being far more offensive, labelling Trump a bully that you need to face without blinking. Such statements are popular among the Mexican electorate and were echoed by both AMLO and the fourth candidate Jaime Rodriguez Calderon who so far only enjoys limited voting intentions.

Yet if martial rhetoric is to be expected in a presidential campaign, the reality is that Mexico needs foreign investment to sustain its economy. Mexico’s unemployment is remarkably low at 3.8 percent of the population but salaries remain very low and economic growth perspectives are grim (+2.6 percent) mainly because of the uncertainty around the future of NAFTA.

As a result, Mexico needs to diversify its partners and AMLO has been regularly criticized by his opponents for his weak track record to generate trade and investments. During the first debate in April, Meade had qualified AMLO as the leader of a sect opposing trade agreements with Japan and Australia. On Sunday, Anaya brandished documents attesting of the low level of investments in the Mexican capital when AMLO was its mayor.

This exchange was characteristic of the aggressive tone of the debate. “liar”, “phony”, “authoritarian” were some of the terms used by Anaya to describe AMLO. In return, the leftist veteran called the 39-year-old Anaya a “despicable demagogue”. As Anaya approached him during an exchange, AMLO adamantly waved his wallet before tucking it under his arm, alluding to his regular description of the PAN leader as a thief and corrupt politician.

If this debate is unlikely to have significantly reduced AMLO’s lead in the polls, things might evolve soon. As we get closer to the election date, the developing anti-AMLO front is likely to resonate stronger among the electorate, swaying voters towards Anaya and away from Meade. One of the key topics of opposition where Anaya could score significant progress could be the fight against violence in the country. Conveniently, security issues will be again at the heart of the final debate on June 12.

Mexico is plagued by criminal gang activity, from kidnappings to narcotrafficking, favored by notoriously corrupt police officers and local politicians. AMLO’s past declaration in favor of an amnesty for some criminals will be again exploited by the other candidates. On the opposite extreme, the independent candidate, Rodriguez Calderon, is encouraging military teaching in school which he already promoted as former Governor of Nuevo Leon.

During the April debate he had surprised by stating that he would “cut off the hands of civil servants who rob” much to the dismay of the electorate. Without falling into such caricatural position, Meade and Anaya will underline the perceived lax position defended by AMLO.

Whether Anaya will have enough time to cement his position as the only recourse against AMLO and thus vacuum votes away from Meade and Rodriguez Calderon remains to be seen. If he does, he might be able to pull a last second victory on July 1, a scenario that AMLO knows all too well after his narrow defeats to Calderon and Pena Nieto in 2006 and 2012.

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