Mexican presidential debate gets personal

FILES – This combination of two file photos shows Xochitl Galvez, at left, arriving to register her name as a presidential candidate on July 4, 2023 in Mexico City, and at right, Claudia Sheinbaum at an event that presented her as her party’s presidential nominee on Sept. 6, 2023 in Mexico City. (Photograph: Fernando Llano / AP)

The two women leading Mexico’s presidential race clashed Sunday on issues including corruption, gender violence and healthcare in a heated debate marked at times by personal attacks.

Frontrunner Claudia Sheinbaum of the ruling left-wing party and her main rival Xochitl Galvez, both 61, traded accusations and retorts of “lies” during the first of three face-to-face meetings before the June 2 elections.

Galvez, an outspoken businesswoman and opposition senator, described Sheinbaum as “cold and heartless,” saying she lacked sympathy for child cancer patients and earthquake victims.

“Claudia Sheinbaum offers you to continue hugging criminals,” Galvez said — a reference to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s “hugs not bullets” strategy to tackle violent crime at its roots.

Nearly 450,000 people have been murdered across Mexico in a spiral of drug-related violence since 2006.

“My offer to you is that we build a Mexico where we put an end to violence, but above all that we focus on health and education,” Galvez said.

Sheinbaum, a former Mexico City mayor and close ally of Lopez Obrador, vowed to become “the first woman president of Mexico.”

She said the choice was to “return to the corruption of the past” or “advance with the transformation” of the country started by Lopez Obrador.

The outgoing left-wing populist enjoys an approval rating of nearly 70 per cent but is required by the constitution to leave office after one term.

Galvez — who was born to an Indigenous Otomi father and mixed-race mother — said Mexico would have its “first woman president, but not just any woman — it will be a Mexican woman with Indigenous roots.”

But she faces a tough battle to win the election.

According to an average of polls compiled by the firm Oraculus, Sheinbaum has 59 per cent of voter support, while Galvez is in second place with 35 per cent.

Jorge Alvarez Maynez of the Citizen Movement party, who also took part in the debate, is a distant third with six per cent.

“There aren’t only two visions of the country,” the 38-year-old politician insisted.

The thorny issues of insecurity and foreign policy were largely left for the remaining debates.

“The debates are the only chance for Galvez to try to force Sheinbaum to make a mistake,” Roy Campos, an expert with the polling firm Consulta Mitofsky, told AFP.

But it was unlikely that the contests would change voters’ intentions much, he said.

“It’s very difficult for a citizen to say ‘Oh, I’m going to change my vote,’” Campos said.