Mexico candidates pile on leftist front-runner in debate

People watch a public television screen showing Mexico's presidential candidate for the MORENA party, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (C) during the first presidental debate

Mexico City (AFP) – Mexico’s presidential candidates sparred feistily on the crime and corruption racking the country in their first debate Sunday, but achieved near-unanimity on one issue: attacking the leftist front-runner, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Most recent opinion polls give Lopez Obrador a double-digit lead heading into the July 1 election, putting the fiery former Mexico City mayor squarely in the sights of his four rivals as they held their first of three debates.

Fending off attacks from all sides, Lopez Obrador — widely known as “AMLO” — at one point whipped out a chart with the latest poll numbers by way of rebuttal.

“I don’t want to brag, but I humbly submit to you the latest poll: 48 percent support,” he said in a mocking tone.

In Mexico’s first-past-the-post election system, that would be enough for him to win in his third bid at the presidency, given that the remainder is split between the rest of the crowded field.

It remains to be seen whether the debate will change those numbers.

The other candidates launched a relentless series of personal and policy attacks, especially tearing into Lopez Obrador’s flirtation with one controversial proposal: granting an amnesty for drug crimes in an effort to halt record-breaking violence linked to narcotics trafficking.

Second-place candidate Ricardo Anaya, who is running for a coalition between his conservative National Action Party and two leftist parties, called an amnesty “a crazy idea that would generate enormous violence.”

When Lopez Obrador, 64, said he was not proposing an amnesty — just a national dialogue on the issue, with a panel of experts “including Pope Francis” — Anaya laid into the front-runner for waffling.

“He tricks people. He tailors his message to whoever his audience is, and since today everyone is watching, he doesn’t know what to say,” he said.

Anaya, 39, had 26 percent of the vote in the Reforma newspaper poll cited by Lopez Obrador.

A baby-faced political whizz who was formerly speaker of Congress, his rapid rise has been marred by corruption allegations that he denounces as spurious.

Third-place candidate Jose Antonio Meade of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who had 18 percent in the Reforma poll, joined the attacks on Lopez Obrador, but also had to fend off fierce criticism of the party and deeply unpopular President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Two independent candidates with single-digit poll numbers, former first lady Margarita Zavala and rancher turned governor Jaime “El Bronco” Rodriguez, meanwhile sought momentum — the latter by proposing to amputate the hands of corrupt officials.

“Literally?” a moderator asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “We have to cut a hand off the criminals.”