The televised debate, held in Guadalajara in the violence-torn state of Jalisco, could help decide the tight race with just three weeks to go before the July 1 vote.
Two severed human arms wrapped in a bag were found shortly before the debate near the exhibition centre where the event was held, police said. Jalisco is one of the centres of drug violence that has claimed more than 50 000 lives in Mexico over the past six years.
The top two rivals – Enrique Peña Nieto of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who lost by a narrow margin in 2006 – hoped to get a boost from the event that could take them over the top.
Both Peña Nieto and López Obrador talked about the need to fight poverty, stimulate economic growth and recover Mexico’s leading role in Latin America.
“There is a need for a new course that will translate into better living conditions for Mexicans,” said the telegenic 45-year-old Peña Nieto, who now has a commanding lead with 43.6% support in opinion polls to López Obrador’s 29.2%.
Meanwhile, López Obrador urged his compatriots “to vote without fear for change”.
The leftist leader blasted the current Mexican government, saying it was “rotten, past its expiration date”, adding the country needed a decisive renewal.
For Josefina Vázquez Mota of the ruling centre-right National Action Party (PAN) who is trailing with 25.3% support, the debate offered her a last chance to score big in her quest to become Mexico’s first woman president.
The ruling party candidate adopted an assertive stance, attacking both Peña Nieto and López Obrador and arguing that both of her main rivals represented Mexico’s past.
“You, young people of the country, you can rally in the streets without fearing an authoritarian president,” said Vázquez Mota.
The nominee of the PAN then took on López Obrador, who had suggested cutting the salaries of top government officials which, according to his calculations, will help save 300-billion pesos ($21.3-million).
“To me, his calculus does not square up,” Vázquez Mota said, adding that the firing of all government employees would save Mexico only 280-billion pesos.
President Felipe Calderón appeared to weigh in on the debate when he tweeted that the laying off of top government officials would save only two-billion pesos.
Unlike the debate on May 6 with a traditional format that allowed for very brief answers, this one let the candidates speak up to 8.5 minutes on several different subjects, the Federal Elections Board said.
For weeks, students under the Yosoy132 – “I am the 132”, a reference to the protest initiators – youth movement have mobilised online and in the streets to slam favourable media coverage of Peña Nieto they say aims to make his win look inevitable, accusing the PRI candidate, who is married to an ex-soap opera star, of corruption.
The students cranked their campaign into high gear again Sunday, using social media to call supporters out to city squares to watch the debate, said Carlos Brito, a movement spokesperson.
More than 90 000 movement supporters thronged the Zocalo, the capital’s landmark main square, to rally against the PRI candidate. They were to march against Peña Nieto to the Angel of Independence monument.
‘Peña will not be president’
And there were more student anti-Peña protests in at least five other cities around the country.
“You can see here that Peña will not be president,” marchers chanted in a chaotic back-and-forth chorus.
López Obrador, who was blamed for triggering a dramatic political stalemate when he contested his 2006 defeat, is now running as a moderate candidate.
With frustration growing against the PRI, some analysts think this middle-of-the-road approach could put him within reach of victory.
Nearly 80-million Mexicans are eligible to vote for a new president for a six-year term beginning in December, with the winner taking over from Calderón of the PAN.
The election will also renew the lower and upper houses of the Mexican Congress and select governors in six states, the Mexico City mayor and local legislative bodies. – AFP