For the first time in history, Mexican presidential candidates are being forced by law to participate in two debates as legally mandated in 2007. Previously, debates weren't an campaign requirement, and the frontrunner typically played hooky.
"There isn't a democratic tradition of questioning authority," said Bernardo Portillo, coordinator of the Committee for Electoral Observation. "The parties still aren't taking the risks of democracy."
In the run-up to Mexico's July 1 presidential elections, "there are very few chances to expose a candidate to problematic questions or issues," Portillo said.
The May 6 debate left little to chance, in fact. Political parties pre-negotiated the format with the country's elections authority, including the questions, which candidates received ahead of time. Even the filming was regulated – no wide takes or shots of one candidate's reaction to another.
Although Mexico's political system mimicked democracy for most of last century, the political party that emerged after the Mexican Revolution – the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI – won every election and ruled the nation in a semi-authoritarian government until 2000.
The country's democratic opening came with the election of President Vicente Fox that year, when the opposition National Action Party booted the PRI. Mexico has been working to improve its democracy ever since.
Three candidates – the PRI's Enrique Pena Nieto, who has been enjoying a wide lead in polls; Josefina Vazquez Mota, the PAN candidate running to become Mexico's first-ever female president; and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Democratic Revolution Party candidate who lost the presidency in 2006 by a razor-thin margin – responded to the questions asked by a moderator with answers that often appeared rehearsed.
The PAN and PRD candidates used chunks of their allotted response time to attack Pena Nieto. A fourth candidate, Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, expected to win just a couple percentage points of the vote, chided the other three for bickering instead of making concrete proposals.
But the most heated arguments came well before the big night, as a debate emerged about the debate – namely whether its broadcast should be forced on the country's two most powerful networks. It hit on a touchy issue: the outsized clout of Mexico's media moguls.
Ricardo Salinas Pliego, owner of TV Azteca, made a public decision to show a national soccer game on his channel that reaches 100 percent of Mexican households with a television. Emilio Azcarraga Jean, owner of Televisa, offered to air the debate on a less popular channel while continuing to air a glitzy youth talent show on its most widely viewed channel.
Civil groups lashed back and accused the networks of thwarting democracy, even of challenging the Mexican state.
"It's simply about a legitimate corporate strategy based on the preferences of the public," Salinas Pliego said in a blog post explaining his decision.
The real star of the show turned out to be neither the media moguls, nor the candidates, but a former Playboy model who sauntered across the stage with a box of letters for the candidates to draw to determine who would take the first question. The woman's revealing, form-fitting dress prompted the immediate creation of Twitter account that drew thousands of followers, an outcry of impropriety and, later, a public apology by the nation's election authority.
Meanwhile, the ratings proved that la politica in Mexico still has pull. According to Mexico's Milenio newspaper, Televisa's airing of the debate beat TV Azteca's soccer game 10.4 to 9 points.
Photos courtesy the Federal Electoral Institute.