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Mexico held its first debate of the presidential campaign season. All candidates attacked leftist frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador relentlessly, who managed to make his points without getting dragged down, says Mexico analyst John Ackerman

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GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert, joining you from Quito, Ecuador. Last Sunday, Mexico’s five main presidential candidates held their first televised debate for the July 1st presidential election. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist candidate of the Morena Party and former mayor of Mexico City, enjoys a massive twenty-two point lead, according to a poll released last week. As such, the four other presidential candidates relentlessly attacked López Obrador, or AMLO, as he’s known by his initials. The main issues that were brought up during the debate were corruption, crime, and economic growth, among others. Joining me to analyze the latest from Mexico’s presidential campaign is John Ackerman. John is professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM, and he’s also editor in chief of the Mexican Law Review, and a columnist for the publications La Jornada and Proceso. Good to have you back with us again, John.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Greg, great to be on.

GREG WILPERT: So, first of all, how has the debate been received? I mean, how well did the different candidates do, and can we talk about any candidate having won the debate?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Well, let’s get a little context first, because, you know, it’s really funny, this whole debate thing. You know, historically, debates were not the center of the political campaigns. It was more about-and it still is, in many ways, about campaign stops, visiting public meetings, more close contact with Mexican people. In the recent elections, the Mexican electoral system has become more Americanized and now, like never before really, there’s all this emphasis on “the debate as spectacle,” as, you know, the great moment in which the different candidates are going to question each other on these one minute soundbites. And, so it’s kind of strange. It’s still kind of a new thing for Mexicans. Those of us who support political change in Mexico see it with some sort of suspicion, because it seems to be the imposition of American model.

Those of the people in the Mexican population who are very anti-López Obrador- López Obrador is the leader in the polls- are really hoping that in these debates, the other candidates will be able to eat away at his his lead. And that was the purpose that some of these- so, all the candidates, all four other candidates, attacked sort of systematically. There’s a statistic that was published yesterday by Reformer Newspaper which shows that López Obrador also received over 50 attacks from the different candidates, while the other ones received less than 10 each of them. And he had, of course, very limited time, the same time as the other four, while he got four times more attacks. And so, there could be two different kinds of effects. We’ll see what the polls say. On one hand, people say that he didn’t somehow respond to these attacks, though he of course didn’t have time. But he was also trying to maintain that high ground. And on the other hand, people were saying that it seems like he might have emerged unharmed from these attacks by precisely focusing on the issues, on his proposals. But, we’ll see. We’ll see what the polls say, we’ll see what people say. The mass media in Mexico is very anti-Obrador, so they are really putting this massive spin that he somehow lost the debate and this is going to be tragic for his campaign.

GREG WILPERT: So, let’s start to take a look at one of the exchanges where López Obrador and Jose Antonio Meade of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, clash on the issue of crime and amnesty for criminals. I should note that recently, I think just this week, crime statistics came out and showed that crime is up again in Mexico and it’s higher now during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto than it was during the previous president, Calderon, who had actually waged this massive war on drugs. So, it’s quite something. And so, it’s understandably a major issue during this campaign. So, let’s roll this clip first.

ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: It has been claimed that I want to release all criminals from prison that have committed a crime. What I consider is that we have to tackle the origins, the causes of violence.

JOSE ANTONIO MEADE: How are you going to explain to families that you want to sit down with these criminals and hold dialogue? With your ambition for power, your fear of losing again you have become a puppet for criminals. I will put them in jail.

GREG WILPERT: So, John, what was this about? What is ANLO proposing with all this amnesty stuff, and how are the other candidates reacting to this proposal?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Yeah, that’s a great clip because it really shows the complexities of the political situation there in Mexico. So, you have the candidate, Meade, who is the candidate of Peña Nieto, who has been accused of being complicit in massive corruption scandals. And this present presidency with Peña Nieto, as you mentioned, violence has gotten even more out of control than with Calderon. Him somehow accusing López Obrador, who was the outsider for the last ten years, of being complicit with the criminals. So, that’s sort of really crazy, at least from a Mexican point of view. And it’s hard to believe that statement on Meade’s point. Now, with with respect to López Obrador, he’s proposing- he’s mentioned the word amnesty. He hasn’t been particularly clear about what this means, I think intentionally so. What he’s trying to do is sort of introduce into the discussion a different framework basically for the last 12 years.

Calderon and Peña Nieto have been following, slavishly, the orders of Washington, basically, to carry out this aggressive, violent, militarized drug war, which has ended up turning Mexico into a bloodbath. Two hundred and fifty thousand dead over the last 12 years, over thirty-five thousand disappeared. And, you know, the drugs keep flowing. And there’s not actually progress either in Mexico, in terms of law enforcement, or in the United States in terms of stopping the drugs. So, what López Obrador is saying, “Let’s change the discussion, instead of talking about war, let’s talk about peace, and if we talk about peace, how are we going to get there?” Obviously, this means that we need to, instead of fighting fire with fire, we need to start to think about different strategies for reincorporating, for instance, the youth peasants of Mexico, who are entangled in this network of narco violence, find ways incorporating them into normal society with jobs with school. And so López Obrador is proposing a massive scholarship program for youth, support for the countryside. And, simultaneously, a second chance for those who may have participated in these networks. And, of course, Meade and Anaya, the people who are very heavily invested in the present system, are saying that this means he wants to negotiate with the criminals, let them out of jail, and create even more chaos and violence, when exactly the opposite. The idea is to end the chaos we’re in today and try to transit towards a different status quo, a different equilibrium.

GREG WILPERT: So, another issue that came up a lot during the debate is the issue of corruption and the conservative candidate, at one point, Ricardo Anaya, accused ANLO of being corrupt himself. How can he do that, and on what basis is he making that kind of an accusation, and what are ANLO’s proposals for dealing with the issue itself, since he’s raised it himself as one of his main campaign issues?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Yes, they’re desperately trying to make López Obrador appear as if he’s another politician, just like the rest of them, for instance, who are corrupt, and immersed in profound corruption scandals. So, they’ve been constantly, for the last few years, trying to dig up anything on López Obrador. One of the accusations that came out in this debate is actually an accusation which has already being retracted by the Wall Street Journal, two years ago, about two apartments that his sons have, which is, reportedly- supposedly he hadn’t reported them correctly on a public declaration. It wasn’t even a corruption charge, it was just a false reporting charge which is absolutely false. The Wall Street Journal itself has has retracted. On the other hand, Anaya, the PAN candidate, right wing candidate, has been accusing his collaboratives. Different candidates from his party, Morena, have been accused of different kinds of crimes.

Of course, those need to get investigated, and López Obrador has been in favor of that investigation, but he hasn’t actually been able to find directly against López Obrador. Now, the corruption proposals, concretely, he has a website, which goes point by point to what his proposals are, what he insisted on in debate is very simple, the powerful message. What he says is that, we have laws on the books, and Mexican laws are actually quite good in terms of combating corruption, and lots of independent institutions, lots of laws. But, what we really need in Mexico, says Lope Obrador, is for the leadership to be honest, for the president to be honest, and set an example for the rest of the government. And this is criticized as being simplistic, but it’s actually true, it’s actually where he’s emphasizing. So, for instance, he wants to review also the contracts for this mega airport project, he wants to look at the contracts for the petroleum contracts, which have been doled out by Peña Nieto into the last few years, to see if they’re actually honest and clear contracts, or whether they were some sort of corruption or insider dealing, which would be likely. So, for instance, Odebrecht is very much present in Mexico, but the exception in Mexico is that in comparison to other countries in South America, Central America, nothing has happened in Mexico. There’s been no investigation, any kind of real investigation, and nobody has been put into jail or even formally charged for the massive corruption scandal involving Odebrecht here in Mexico, at least ten million dollars.

GREG WILPERT: So, turning to the issue of the economy, actually it’s López Obrador, actually in his debate, also related to the economy, pointing out that the Mexican economy has hardly grown, if not at all, during the last 30 years. And so, it’s no surprise that with growing poverty that there would be also growing crime. So, but what are the different proposals, particularly of the two front runners, that is ANLO, and the other frontrunner right now seems to be the conservative candidate, Ricardo Anaya? What are their respective proposals addressing the issue of economic growth?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Well, you have to understand, Mexico and Colombia, of course, are the only two countries in Latin America who have had absolutely no change or experimentation with alternative economic strategy since the eighties. We are still stuck in the Washington consensus of the eighties, of the neoliberal reforms of the 80s. For the last thirty years, there’s been no change in economic policy. In fact, it’s gotten worse, and the neoliberal pro-market reforms have become, it’s become increasingly clear in Mexico, at least, that these are not actually pro-market reforms, but are actually pro-monopoly reforms, in terms of empowering a very strong oligarchic class in Mexico. Eighteen families own sixty percent of the national wealth in Mexico. And so, what Anaya and Meade propose is continuing along the same route. Meade was foreign minister, even, and he was very gung-ho about the so-called structural reforms, for privatizing PEMEX, the oil company, cutting out protections for labor. That has already happened, legal labor reform about five years ago. Now they want to have another labor reform to continue to eliminate the rights of workers in Mexico. So-called educational reform, which is basically, you know, sort of a U.S. model test-based, neoliberal project.

And so, what López Obrador is proposing is, “let’s get back to basics.” He’s not into- he doesn’t want to close off the border or have an insular strategy, but he wants to- taking account the fact that there is a global economy, trying to make sure that global economy works for Mexicans, that it actually helps increase salaries and strengthens the local and the national market. He’s not even against NAFTA, actually. He has not come out against NAFTA, but he’s in favor of making NAFTA work for the Mexican people, and he says that that would also make NAFTA work better for the American people in the United States. He’s even, in his speeches in the United States, tried to talk, address directly, the base of the Trump voters, saying that Trump is fooling them in terms of blaming the Mexicans. The real problem is the distribution of wealth and they themselves would be benefited by a more just economy in North America.

GREG WILPERT: Well, unfortunately, that’s all we have time for today, but we’ll definitely come back to you again as the campaign develops, almost on a weekly basis. I was speaking to John Ackerman, professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Thanks again, John, for having joined us today.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Thank you Greg. Pleasure as always.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you, for joining The Real News Network.

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John M. Ackerman

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), editor-in-chief of The Mexican Law Review and a columnist at both Procesomagazine and La Jornada newspaper.  (


Disclosure:  Dr. Irma Eréndira Sandoval, one of Mexico’s leading experts in anti-corruption theory and practice, was recently announced by López Obrador as his future comptroller general, if he wins the election. She does not receive any salary from López Obrador or MORENA, nor does she work directly on the campaign. This is one of many strictly honorary invitations that AMLO has made to a series of leading figures in civil society to form a part of his cabinet without requiring any specific political loyalty from them.

Sandoval holds a PhD from the University of California and has been a fellow at both Harvard University and the Sorbonne, so she definitely doesn’t owe this future job to her husband. And it is public knowledge that my own support, as an independent intellectual, for AMLO goes back years (see, for instance, this previous piece in The Nation). The views expressed in this essay are strictly my own and should not be attributed to Sandoval, López Obrador, Putin, or anyone else.