Mexico’s presidential front--runner Enrique Pena Nieto emerged largely unscathed in a televised debate on Sunday night after his adversaries failed to take advantage of an increase in opposition to his bid.
During a two-hour encounter largely devoid of drama, Pena Nieto was barely troubled by his leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose recent surge in the polls has added an element of uncertainty to the July 1 vote.
In the past month, Pena Nieto’s opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has been hit by a wave of student-led opposition playing on memories of the PRI’s reputation for corruption and authoritarianism during its 71-year rule.
Lopez Obrador has been the main beneficiary of the anti-PRI surge, but he made little effort to rally that support on Sunday night, preferring instead to repeat election mantras and list the members of his planned Cabinet.
“Lopez Obrador should have said ‘thank you’ to the student protests or ‘We don’t want the PRI’s authoritarianism,’ but he lacked the political intelligence and wasted a golden opportunity,” said Javier Oliva, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“I have no doubt now that Pena Nieto is going to be the next president,” he added.
The jump in support for 2006 runner-up Lopez Obrador has pushed Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party (PAN) back into third place in most polls.
She made most of the attacks during the debate, trying to brand her adversaries as two sides of the same coin, at turns describing them as corrupt, cowardly and untrustworthy.
However, many analysts believe she will struggle to finish better than third.
Most polls show Pena Nieto with a double-digit lead, with a survey by polling firm BGC published on Thursday giving him 42 percent support, an advantage of 14 points over both his rivals.
Just a few months ago the 58-year-old Lopez Obrador was more than 20 points adrift in most polls, but on May 31, one survey put him just four points behind the PRI candidate.
Instead of celebrating his rise in the polls as he has on the campaign trail, Lopez Obrador sat back and came under fire in the debate from Vazquez Mota who reminded voters that he had once belonged to the PRI before he quit in the late 1980s.
Despite her spirited showing on Sunday night, her bid has suffered at the hands of growing disillusionment with the PAN.
Having ousted the PRI in 2000, the party has struggled under Mexican President Felipe Calderon to cope with drug-related violence and a weak job market, allowing Mexico’s old rulers to regroup.
Tens of thousands of protestors marched against the PRI in Mexico City on Sunday, holding up banners warning that a Pena Nieto win would bring back the worst elements of his party and benefit entrenched interests like dominant broadcaster Televisa.
Some also marked the 41st anniversary of a notorious student massacre in the capital, which alongside the bloody suppression of demonstrations in the city’s Tlatelolco District in 1968 are among the most infamous acts of repression tied to the PRI.
Trouble began brewing online for the 45-year-old Pena Nieto after May 11, when students at Mexico City’s private Ibero-American University heckled and booed him for his record as governor of the State of Mexico between from 2005 to last year.