No-Show in Mexico: Political Gaffe? ; Leftist Presidential Candidate Lopez Obrador Skipped Tuesday Night's Debate

Article excerpt

There was ruling National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon Hinojosa looking dapper, smiling at the camera and holding up a picture of a luxury Miami apartment. He claims his rival, former governor of Tabasco, Roberto Madrazo Pintado, didn't pay taxes on.

There was Mr. Madrazo, knocking former energy minister Mr. Calderon, waving newspaper reports of recent crime and corruption under his party's watch, and promising a fresh start with his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the last century.

There were Roberto Campa and Patricia Mercado, two minor candidates using their 15 minutes of fame to attack both Madrazo and Calderon, and push proposals on everything from the environment to exercise classes in high schools.

And there, in the corner was an empty lectern, standing in for leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, long seen as the man to beat in Mexico's July elections. The Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) leader decided to skip the first of two presidential debates this Tuesday night.

"The battle for the silver medal," was how Mr. Lopez Obrador's campaign manager Jesus Ortega described the debate, which is only the third time such an exercise has been held in Mexico. For decades election fraud and government intervention practically guaranteed victory for the outgoing president's hand-picked successor.

But, say observers, Lopez Obrador may have miscalculated. The decision to stay away, possibly to portray himself as an underdog, under attack by all the rest, seems to have backfired.

"He had something better to do?" wondered Isaias Juarez, a night watchman and self-described "disappointed Lopez Obrador supporter," who watched the two-hour debate on a small TV outside a private home he was guarding.

Contrary to expectations, the candidates barely even mentioned Lopez Obrador at the debate, depriving him of a "victim" role. "He didn't come to this debate because he doesn't have viable proposals," Calderon said of Lopez Obrador in his opening remarks, and left it at that.

Instead, the four other presidential hopefuls took the opportunity to engage in a fairly substantive - if slightly stiff - exchange on the economy and development, laying out plans for housing, energy, labor, poverty alleviation, and social and sustainable development.

"It was not the most entertaining [debate], but still better than expected," says Ana Paula Ordorica, a political columnist for the daily Excelsior newspaper, summing up the prevailing evaluation of the event by the Mexican press. …