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Mexico’s Candidates Line Up In Strange TV Debate

Mexico City

So far removed from Planet Earth are the two “main” candidates for Mexico’s 2012 presidential election – one at least gets a harsh dose of reality from (supposedly) third-placed and heavily-marginalized Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – that this kind of farce was inevitable.

The new rules imposed by Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) in 2008 mean that political parties can’t simply buy up TV time as they used to. Instead, IFE allocates the spots and also sanctioned two nationally televised debates, the first of which took place this past Sunday.

Supposed frontrunner – although the polls are constantly being questioned – Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had already ducked out of two “unofficial” debates, citing his busy schedule. Then, the country’s two-headed corporate television monopoly, and PRI-aligned, Televisa/TV Azteca, refused to broadcast Sunday’s official debate on its principal channels, showing its renowned disdain for this whole “democracy” thing.

Televisa relegated the debate to one of its secondary channels; TV Azteca refused to show it altogether as it clashed with a football (soccer) playoff between Morelia’s Monarcas (owned by TV Azteca honcho Ricardo Salinas Pliego, no less) and Monterrey’s Tigres. Even in soccer-mad Latin America, something smelled rotten – IFE had notified the Mexican Football Federation of the debates months in advance. Sure, Azteca would pocket a small fortune off advertising revenue for the game and wouldn’t get a cent for showing the presidential debate, but this is Mexico’s most crucial election in years.

Between them, Televisa and TV Azteca dominate Mexico’s airwaves, sucking up some 98 per cent of the domestic audience share. Supposedly competitors, their combined agenda represents the 1 per cent of economic interests in a country where at least 52 million people live in poverty; 12 million in extreme poverty.

After the announcement, leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (aka AMLO) of the Progressive Movement coalition appealed to the Interior Ministry (SEGOB) to invoke Article 62 of the Federal Radio & Television Law, which would oblige all open TV channels to broadcast the debate in the name of national importance. The right-wing incumbent National Action Party (PAN) joined in the call.

IFE, however, which had previously accused the networks of “sending a bad message to democracy”, rejected the petition, shaping it in terms of broadcaster “liberty”. The decision angered many, who labeled the institute cowardly, ineffective, or just plain guilty of favoring the PRI. The Interior Ministry could have forced the issue, but declined. Mexico City’s left-wing mayor Marcelo Ebrard – likely to succeed AMLO as PRD candidate in 2018 – announced the debate would be shown on giant screens in the capital’s main square, utilizing equipment already in place for a free Paul McCartney concert this Thursday.

Welcome to PRI-TV

It’s all about protecting gaffe-prone PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, whom both Televisa and TV Azteca have been lavishing with praise for years. Ladies’ man Pena is a good-looking candidate, for sure, and the PRI is at least correct when it says that poverty, unemployment, and of course, violence, have soared under twelve years of the PAN. But the golden boy’s knack for butchering even the simplest sound-bite was starting to give his campaign team sleepless nights.

Unsurprisingly, the PRI weighed in to defend its ever-so-partial media counterparts. “The TV companies are doing what they think is best,” said shameless PRI deputy Jorge Carlos Ramirez Marin. “To demand that people watch the debate by force is the attitude of an authoritarian regime.” This coming from a party that ruled Mexico for 71 years, rigging elections and torturing and murdering dissidents along the way.

Why did TV Azteca oppose screening the debate? Likely because its owner Salinas Pliego, Mexico’s fourth richest man, with a fortune of $8.9 billion, knows his interests would be well taken care of under a PRI government. The party has always protected the monopolies – world’s richest man Carlos Slim included – that straddle Mexico’s telecommunications industry.

Mexico had its first “US-style” televised debates in 1994, although during the 71 years that the PRI ruled the country, debate didn’t really matter. The “perfect dictatorship” (as Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa called it) suppressed democracy at every step. The right-wing National Action Party (PAN) finally unseated the PRI in 2000 and the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) also built a strong electoral presence. The PRI, however, still gets ludicrously positive coverage from the media empires it helped found.

The PRI changed its stripes repeatedly during its seven-decade dynasty, starting out as torch-bearer of the Mexican Revolution and winding up as a poster-child for IMF-imposed neoliberalism. Now, the party hopes to capitalize on a disastrous 12 years of PAN governance – essentially nothing more than a continuation of the latter-day PRI’s economic policies with a bloody, militarized “Drug War” to boot.

Lights, Camera, Propaganda 

The debate went ahead Sunday night and it turns out the TV audience did want “superficial political discourse”, as Salinas Pliego called it; the IFE showdown grabbed a 10.4 rating compared to the football’s 9.0. To add insult to injury for Salinas, his Monarcas fell 4-1 to Los Tigres in the quarterfinal.

As for the debate itself, IFE threw a series of predictably softball questions designed to give the candidates maximum space to maneuver. The four hopefuls – “citizen candidate” Gabriel Quadri de la Torre completed the line-up – simply reeled off their campaign greatest hits, and AMLO and PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota continued their personal feuds with Pena Nieto.

The key concerns for Mexicans ahead of the July vote are undoubtedly the country’s gang violence – tens of thousands dead since 2006 and no end to the drug trade in sight – and the economy. The really tough questions about the rapidly widening wealth gap, the corruption that allows organized crime to flourish, the PAN’s militarization of the country, and the disgrace of up to 50,000 deaths in a so-called “crackdown” on crime were telling by their absence.

If the PRI does in fact win – and does so cleanly – it may be in large part down to the perception that the old ruling party knew how to handle the so-called drug cartels, negotiating pacts and keeping turf wars to a minimum. As a former student of mine told me, “We’d rather have a corrupt country at peace than a corrupt country with this kind of violence.”

Although many feel he burned his bridges in 2006, the only candidate offering any change to the old economic order is AMLO, who is arguing for a re-think of Mexico’s neoliberal model and a greater emphasis on social policy to combat crime. Still portrayed in the mainstream as a loony leftist, he’s about as “radical” as France’s François  Hollande.

With the election set for July 1st, we still await the Mexican equivalent of an “October (June?) surprise”. A juicy scandal that downs one of the top candidates? President Calderon delivering the head of drug lord “El Chapo”? Pena Nieto tearing off his mask to reveal Carlos Salinas de Gortari? We’ll wait and see.

PAUL IMISON lives in Mexico City. He can be reached at paulimison@hotmail.com

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