Mexico's Anti-Populist Wins Debates, But He Can't Close Poll Gap

(Bloomberg) -- Ricardo Anaya put in a strong performance in Mexico’s second presidential debate -- just as he had in the first one. But it’s probably too little, too late.

Mexico's Anti-Populist Wins Debates, But He Can't Close Poll Gap

In Sunday’s nationally televised event, Anaya -- the main challenger to leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -- delivered another win, according to local analysts. He called out inconsistencies in his rival’s platform, and even provoked Lopez Obrador into losing his cool.

But time’s running out for the 39-year-old Anaya, who heads a left-right coalition, to close a poll deficit that stands at 18 percentage points, according to the latest Bloomberg tracker. He performed strongly in the first debate April 22 too, but the resulting bounce in popularity proved shortlived. With six weeks left before the election, some analysts say Anaya is failing to consolidate the “anyone but AMLO” vote that offered his best route to victory.

The challenger’s biggest mistake, according to political scientist Carlos Bravo, was burning bridges with the ruling PRI party, whose candidate is running a distant third.

Mexico's Anti-Populist Wins Debates, But He Can't Close Poll Gap

Anaya needed to distinguish himself from the highly unpopular President Enrique Pena Nieto, in order to have any chance against Lopez Obrador. But he took it too far by vowing in his campaign to do everything in his power to investigate Pena Nieto and his PRI colleagues for corruption, says Bravo, who teaches at Mexico City’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching. Mexico law limits presidents to one six-year term.

“He pushed things too far,” Bravo said. “That was a mistake, to fight with someone so openly who still has a lot of power.”

The move boomeranged back on Anaya when he was accused by the federal attorney general of being implicated in a money laundering investigation. He was never charged, and Mexico’s electoral court ruled that the attorney general’s office was wrongfully meddling in the election by making the claim. Still, it hurt his reputation and his polling.

And another consequence is that Anaya can’t now hope for backing from the powerful PRI machine as he seeks to unite the vote against Lopez Obrador. After the elections, that acrimony may impede his PAN party from working with the PRI as a counterweight to Lopez Obrador in Congress.

Political Blowback

Anaya has also been unable to mend fissures within PAN caused by another bold gamble he took early on: forming a coalition with the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party. That, along with his insistence on being the coalition candidate, led to a split in his own party, with former first lady Margarita Zavala quitting the PAN to run as an independent. Though she backed out of the race last week, Zavala has so far declined to endorse Anaya.

His campaign has also been criticized for lack of organization -- he only recently appointed a campaign chief.

Anaya at least has shone in the debates. Last night his goading spurred Lopez Obrador -- whose temper has got him into trouble in the past -- into name-calling. He accused Anaya of being a “demagogic scoundrel.”

“Anaya did not disappoint with his presentation skills -- this is one of his main assets,” said Alonso Cervera, chief Latin American economist at Credit Suisse Group AG. But, there just weren’t enough “fireworks or damaging revelations,” Cervera said. “I don’t think that voter preferences will change much.”

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