Monday, June 11, 2012

Last Mexican Presidential Debate Leaves Front-Runner in Place

In the final candidate debate before Mexico’s July presidential election, front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto was barely shaken by his rivals, despite massive protests in the streets against his long-ruling party’s return to power.

On Sunday, the four leading candidates met for the second and final televised debate, which Reuters characterizes as “tepid,” and the New York Times says lacked the sparks of the first.

The LA Times had said that the debate might be the last chance to shake up the race, with some 25 percent of voters still undecided, but it appears that this was a missed opportunity for Peña’s rivals. The NYT notes that the three others “squabbled amongst themselves,” leaving Peña, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), largely unscathed and failing to puncture his “air of inevitability.” It said the debate largely involved each candidate making arguments for how they could bring change to the country, rather than going deeply into issues like the drug war.

A poll last week gave Peña 42 percent, with the other two lagging 14 points behind.

Josefina Vazquez Mota, the candidate for the ruling centrist National Action Party (PAN), had sharp criticism for her main rivals. She argued that both Peña and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) would represent a return to the corrupt and authoritarian past, reports the Wall Street Journal. She leveled the sharpest barb of the night, holding up a photo of Peña taking shelter from student protests in a bathroom, saying “We don't want someone who is going to hide in the bathroom of a university to resolve the country's problems.” Vazquez also had criticism for Lopez, who pulled ahead of her in recent polls to within four points of the front-runner, pointing out that he used to be a member of the PRI.

Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Mexico City and at least 13 other citiesacross the country before the debate, campaigning against Peña on the 41st anniversary of a 1968 massacre of students under the PRI. Official figures put the number of protesters in the capital at 90,000, reports Milenio. Lopez recently held a rally on the site of the 1968 killings, but failed to capitalize on the public anger against the PRI in the debate. One analyst told Reuters that Lopez missed a golden opportunity by failing to say “thank you” to the protesters or reference the PRI’s authoritarian past. Peña, meanwhile, said that he respected the right of the protesters to speak out against him.

The LA Times blog says that the race is now a two-way contest “between Mexico's former ruling party and everyone opposing its return.” The NYT notes meanwhile, thatfourth-place candidate Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, of the left-leaning New Alliance party, sometimes seized control of the debate, and managed to get all candidates to agree that abortion should be decriminalized across the country.

Whichever candidate wins, the handover of power could mean a shake-up in Mexico’s US-backed war on drugs, according to the NYT, with all candidate promising a shift in emphasis to focus on cutting violence instead of on arrests and drug interdictions.

The BBC looks at other campaign issues, saying that the economy is more important to voters than the war on drugs.

News Briefs

  • Jamaican drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke was given the maximum possible sentence, 23 years, by a New York judge, after pleading guilty last year to cocaine trafficking and assault, reports Bloomberg . From Kingston, the BBC reports on continued support for Coke, who ran the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood as a “state within a state,” punishing street crime and intimidating power companies out of disconnecting illegal power supplies.  TheJamaica Observer reports that residents of the area say they are still waiting for social initiatives promised by the government in the wake of the military and police’s 2010 operation to catch Coke, which left 70 dead. The newspaper alsoreports on letters written by the gang leader from prison, which describe his religious faith and referring to his supposed good works for the community. Meanwhile the Jamaica Gleaner features the headline “Tivoli residents weep over Dudus.”
  • International Crisis Group has released a report on the demobilization of Colombian neo-paramilitary group ERPAC, the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia, in December 2011. It says that the process risks failure, with only a fraction of the group’s members taking part, leaders getting short prison sentences, and the underlying criminal and corrupt structures left untouched. It says that the process is creating the impression that an illegal armed group has “again outwitted” the state.
  • Brazil has granted asylum to a Bolivian senator, leader of the opposition in Congress, who claims he is being persecuted by the Evo Morales government for revealing its ties to the drug trade, reports the WSJInSight Crime says that though Senator Roger Pinto’s accusations are part of broader political point-scoring, he may be correct in his claims about drug ties on the part of members of the Bolivian government.
  • The Economist blog looks at former Brazilian President “Lula” da Silva, who has returned to his role as political power broker in the ruling Workers’ Party since recovering from cancer earlier this year. He has suggested he may run for president again, if successor Dilma Rousseff doesn’t want the job, and intervened in the party’s choice for Sao Paulo mayoral candidate. The Economist says there could be tension between him and protege Rousseff if he continues to attract controversy.
  • The NYT reports on the murders of indigenous leaders in land disputes in Brazil, which it calls a “stain on Brazil’s rise as an economic powerhouse.” Withslideshow. From the LA Times, a look at the plight of workers kept in conditions of slavery in the country's Amazon region, and forced to work on ranches far from the presence of the authorities.
  • The day before he was set to register his candidacy for the October presidential vote, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a public appearance Sunday to say that tests carried out after his treatment for cancer showed that “everything came out absolutely fine,” reports the AP. Pointing to the presidential palace, he promised that “the bourgeoisie will never again return to this building.” Appearances by the president have been increasingly rare in recent weeks, as noted in a previous post, leaving his party’s campaign flat in the absence of its energetic leader. Meanwhile opposition candidate Henrique Capriles led hundreds of thousands of supporters on march through the streets of Caracas as he went to register his candidacy, reports the AP.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has seen her popularity hit by recent economic problems, falling some 20-25 points to 39 percent approval and 34 disapproval, according to new polls, via Bloggings by Boz.
  • There have been clashes in Santiago as police broke up demonstrations over the screening of a pro-Pinochet documentary, reports the BBC.
  • Tim’s El Salvador Blog highlights a PBS report on an epidemic of tooth decay in El Salvador, which one expert blames on snack food imported from the US, noting that the marketing targets poor people -- “they're trying to show this image that if you drink soda or eat the junk food, you will be healthy, happy, modern.”
  • The Miami Herald reports on a new Colombian telenovela about Pablo Escobar, which was written and produced by people who lost family members to the drug lord’s reign of terror. InSight Crime looks at why Escobar continues to fascinate.
  • Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the WSJ slams the Obama administration for allowing Raul Castro’s daughter to visit the US.
  • In Sao Paulo, up to 3 million people were predicted to take to the streets in the city’s 16th annual gay pride march Sunday, reports the AP.
  • The Global Post reports on rumors that a giant mausoleum being constructed in Caracas is intended to be the last resting place of President Hugo Chavez, not just of liberation fighter Simon Bolivar.

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