Mexico debate

(L–R:) Candidates Claudia Sheinbaum, Jorge Álvarez Máynez, Xóchitl Gálvez. (Image: INE YouTube)

Mexico Elects: Tracking the 2024 Presidential Debates

By Carin Zissis

Claudia Sheinbaum, Xóchitl Gálvez, and Jorge Álvarez Máynez sparred in three debates. AS/COA Online tracks the topics and formats of each.

This page was originally published on April 8, 2024 and has been updated since.

Whether debates can make a difference in the outcome of an election is, well, a matter of debate. On one hand, the forums can help voters make better-informed decisions at the ballot box and engage with the electoral process in a manner that deepens democracy. On the other, many observers contend that unless a candidate has a disastrous performance, debates are unlikely to affect results.

In the case of Mexico, the question of whether debates matter is unclear in a race where polls give Claudia Sheinbaum of the governing Morena alliance a roughly 22-point lead over her closest rival, Xóchitl Gálvez of the PAN-PRI-PRD opposition coalition. Another candidate, MC’s Jorge Álvarez Máynez, lands a distant third.

Mexico has been holding presidential debates for 30 years, starting with the 1994 elections. There are signs debates have had an impact on the trajectory of the country’s races, even if they didn’t change the final outcomes of the last two presidential votes of 2012 and 2018. Given that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ran for president three times, this was the first round of presidential debates in which he did not feature since 2000.

The three presidential debates took place April 7, April 28, and May 19 in Mexico City. AS/COA Online summarizes the themes, formats, and outcomes of each forum.

April 7: The stage-setting debate

Topics: The three themes consisted of education and health; corruption and transparency; and violence against women and discrimination against vulnerable groups.

Format: During a two-hour debate, moderators ask 30 out of 108 questions drawn from 24,000 submitted via social media between February 20 and March 21 from across Mexico and broken down by region (north, central, and south). Each candidate delivers one-minute closing remarks. Via a March 22 lottery, the order of participation of the candidates was determined as follows: Sheinbaum, Álvarez Máynez, and Gálvez. 

Location: The first debate took place at the headquarters of the INE electoral agency in the capital.

Summary: As the kickoff debate between the candidates, this round was arguably the most anticipated, and it marked an effort by all three to differentiate themselves from establishment politics. Sheinbaum repeatedly referred to Gálvez as the candidate of the “PRIAN,” a term used to lump together the two main opposition parties in a negative light. Gálvez, most recently a senator representing the PAN, introduced herself by asserting that she is not an official member of any political party. Álvarez Máynez argued that he offered something new and suggested the two other candidates represent “old politics,” although he concentrated his attacks against Gálvez. She hit back, noting that he had previously been a member of the same parties he now assailed. 

There was no lack of barbs throughout the debate; Gálvez repeatedly sought to label the frontrunner as “cold and heartless,” arguing that, despite Sheinbaum’s goal of continuing AMLO’s legacy, she lacked his charisma. She raised questions in connection to controversies marking the incumbent party and Sheinbaum’s time as mayor, ranging from the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic to the collapse of a Mexico City subway line to medicine shortages. Sheinbaum shot back with her own labels, calling Gálvez “corrupt” and a “liar,” and, amid technical difficulties with the debate clock, charged that the opposition candidate even wanted to steal time.

The format consisted of a large number of questions on varying topics and with limited time for substantive proposals. On education, Sheinbaum promised an expansion of scholarships to bring more youth into the classroom, while Gálvez pledged to restore daycare programs and other educational programs ended by the AMLO government. While Sheinbaum defended the Morena government’s health system changes, Gálvez promised to restore Seguro Popular, a national health program ended during the AMLO government. Sheinbaum highlighted Morena’s social programs—arguably one of the AMLO governments most popular measures. Gálvez pledged to keep them in place and expand them. An exchange of accusations of corruption dominated the portion of the debate dedicated to transparency proposals.

In closing remarks, Sheinbaum argued that voters want continuation, Álvarez Máynez made a call for a “new Mexico,” and Gálvez said she would be the country’s first president with indigenous roots. All three candidates claimed they won the debate, though experts differ on who—if anyone—came out on top.

All three candidates claimed they won the debate, though experts differed on who—if anyone—came out on top. However, polling shows the public gave the debate win to Sheinbaum. In the following days, Gálvez expressed that she regretted not wearing a traditional huipil garment during the debate and that she felt uncomfortable in a suit,. Going forward, Xóchitl said, “I will be myself, and if you want me as I am, join in.”

April 28: Economic growth, infrastructure, climate change, and development

Format: Video-recorded questions from citizens across the country and abroad. In this debate, the order of participation of candidates will be: Sheinbaum, Gálvez, and Álvarez Máynez. 

Topics: Economic growth, jobs and inflation, infrastructure and development, poverty and inequality, climate change, and sustainable development.

Location: Churubusco Studios, Mexico City

Summary: In what was the most-watched presidential debate in Mexico's history, mudslinging—primarily between the two frontrunners—once again marked the debate,  with Gálvez repeatedly calling Sheinbaum a “narco-candidate” and at one point holding up a sign showing a silhouette of her rival with a long, Pinocchio-style nose. Sheinbaum, for her part, labeled Gálvez “the corrupt one” and linked her to a “priandilla inmobilaria”—a play on words referring to an alleged property development cartel in the capital. With the other candidates targeting each other, third-place Máynez made his own proposals from the margins of the debate. He closed the forum by reading a wish list from his five-year-old son, Luciano, which included not just “rock and roll and fútbol” but also clean water. 

Luciano is far from the only Mexican worried about water. With droughts affecting 80 percent of the country, contamination of the water supply in the capital, and much of the population receiving water through a rationing system, water access become a major political issue and was a focus area in the second debate. Sheinbaum argued for a national water plan and reforms to a National Water Law. Gálvez proposed ideas such as water treatment, storage, and reuse. Máynez called for federal funding for water infrastructure. 

The debate around water was marked by a focus on sustainability while climate change and renewable energy were also major issues discussed in this round. Sheinbaum highlighted initiatives during her time as Mexico City mayor that promoted solar power and electric buses. She also pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as president while simultaneously praising an oil refinery constructed by the AMLO government. 

Gálvez promised to involve the private sector in Mexico’s transition to greater use of renewable energy. She also argued that Mexico is missing out on nearshoring opportunities due to the lack of a reliable energy supply. Máynez called for a focus on wind and solar energy and said that, if Lázaro Cárdenas, the president who nationalized the country’s oil sector in 1938, were alive today, he would understand that Mexico is no longer an oil power. 

Both Gálvez and Sheinbaum pledged to maintain the popular social programs implemented by the AMLO government. Sheinbaum also took a page out of AMLO’s book and repeatedly used the word “neoliberal” to negatively refer to the governments that preceded his own.  

Who won the second debate? Again, all three candidates claimed they won the debate, but many analysts say Gálvez improved her performance compared with the first round. For one thing, while she framed herself in the first debate as independent from the parties in her alliance, she opened this one by firmly stating that she represented the PAN, PRD, and PRI—  claiming her role as the candidate of the opposition. In a post-debate roundup, analyst Gisela Rubach said Gálvez did better and made the best use of her time, but noted that none of the candidates went deep enough with proposals and all avoided the key topic of fiscal reform. Journalist Raymundo Riva Palacio gave the win to Gálvez but said “nobody delivered a knockout.”  Per Bloomberg, analysts from financial services firm Bradesco say this debate has a bigger chance of moving the needle than did the first, but “we continue to see a challenging road ahead for opposition candidate Gálvez.”

May 19: Security, foreign relations, and democracy

Format: Direct questions from moderators to the candidates and without citizens’ participation. This debate was supposed to include a "face-to-face" format in which the rivals would respond directly to each others' questions, but a little over a week before the debate, the electoral agency changed the format upon the request of the political parties. Instead, each candidate will submit 15 proposed questions

Topics: Security and organized crime, migration and foreign relations, democracy, and power divisions. 

Location: Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, Mexico City

Summary: While the topics differed, there were echoes of the prior two debates in the third and final iteration. Sheinbaum stuck to her talking points while ignoring and even appearing annoyed by criticisms—primarily from Gálvez—about her and her party’s record in areas such as crime, corruption, and health. “Mexicans don’t deserve a presidential debate full of slander,” said Sheinbaum, adding, “I will not, in this case, give in to provocations.” 

That also meant she did not respond to what was arguably the biggest punch Gálvez landed: that Mario Delgado, head of Sheinbaum’s Morena party, is under U.S. investigation for ties to organized crime. But a few days later, Delgado responded by saying the allegation was based on an investigation into a person who happened to have the same name

In the segment of the debate focused on foreign relations, Máynez said relations with the United States would require a firm hand, particularly if Donald Trump—whom he called a “racist”—wins the U.S. election. He also argued that that ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto helped Trump’s first presidential campaign succeed, alluding to a controversial 2016 press conference the then-president hosted with a candidate Trump. Peña Nieto is a member of the PRI, one of the parties in Gálvez’s alliance. Máynez, however, did not highlight López Obrador’s close relations with Trump, despite the fact that AMLO was one of the last presidents worldwide to recognize the 2020 electoral win of Joe Biden. As such, in that moment and throughout the debate, he stuck to his habit of being more critical of Gálvez’s PAN-PRI-PRD alliance than of the governing Morena coalition. In his opening remarks, Máynez, who polls a distant third, rejected calls for a united opposition that would have potentially seen him standing down to back Gálvez’s candidacy. 

All three candidates agreed that nearshoring is important to Mexico’s economy, though Gálvez charged that Morena had not done enough to take advantage of the current favorite business conditions.  Gálvez, who addressed a large-scale protest against democratic backsliding earlier in the day, repeatedly accused Sheinbaum’s party of authoritarian tendencies and friendliness to authoritarian regimes. She said she would not invite the armies of countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Russia, and Venezuela participate in Mexican parades.  (AMLO last year allowed Russian troops to march in Independence Day events.)  

While Sheinbaum avoided making a statement on that specific topic, she quoted famed Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti and said “the south also exists,” adding she would seek to strengthen ties with Latin America and the Caribbean via bodies like CELAC “to keep being a country open to the world.”

On social programs, the candidates agreed those in place should continue. Sheinbaum mentioned new programs for women 60 to 64 and housing for youth, while Gálvez said she would restore programs—such as daycare and full-time schools—discontinued during AMLO’s government. On security, Sheinbaum celebrated crime-prevention statistics during her time as Mexico City mayor, though her rivals and debate analysts questioned the veracity of her figures. 

At one point in the debate, Gálvez accused Sheinbaum of wanting to “sacrifice democracy.”  For her part, Sheinbaum described the 2006 and 2012 elections—both of which AMLO lost—as fraudulent. In closing, she called on Mexican voters to turn out in large numbers on June 2 to avoid questions about the results, saying: “I invite you to vote en masse. You already know how they [opposition parties] are; you already know they are specialists in electoral fraud.” 

Analysts differed again about who won the debate. But as the final one ended, another question formed about whether the formats worked to get a clear vision of candidates and their proposals. With the third debate eliminating face-to-face candidate discussion in favor of moderation, political analyst Georgina De la Fuente argued the format “nourished disinformation,” adding that: “Lying can’t be the norm in a democratic system. It impedes the exercise of free and informed voting.”