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Mexico student protests trip up presidential frontrunner

Presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto is by far the favourite in Mexico’s upcoming elections, but the “I am 132” student movement is trying to rain on his victory parade.


Presidential frontrunner Enrique Pena Nieto had been cruising toward triumph ever since he started campaigning for Mexico’s July 1 elections, but for the past month the candidate of the powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has met an unprecedented backlash from university students across the country.

A string of marches against the Pena Nieto have rallied tens of thousands of young people.

“We are targeting Enrique Pena Nieto because he represents a decadent system that needs to be renewed. As a candidate, he is at the orders of the media industry and other big businesses. As a president, he will only look out for their interests,” said Julio Colin, a 23-year-old political science major at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City.

Colin is one of the spokesmen of the student-led #YoSoy132 movement, or I Am 132, that has been behind massive demonstrations in the Mexican capital and dozens of other cities around the country.

They accuse Televisa and TV Azteca, the country’s two main TV networks, of favouring Pena Nieto in the contest.

The sudden and enthusiastic anti-media and anti-Pena Nieto rallies have captured global headlines, with some journalists wondering if the 132 movement could block the PRI’s widely-predicted return to power.

Pena Nieto now faces an even more embarrassing bump in the campaign road. The three other Mexican presidential hopefuls have agreed to participate in a third and unscheduled debate organised by #YoSoy132 on Tuesday. While the group pledged to lead a balanced debate, Pena Nieto has so far declined to join in.

“We would like to receive [Pena Nieto’s] confirmation at the last moment, but it does not look like he will accept,” said Colin.

Unexpected turn

“It’s really a unique movement in a country that has seen few student movements in more than four decades,” explained Laurence Cuvillier, France 24’s correspondent in Mexico City. “Memories of the military crackdown of student protesters in 1968, in which as many as 200 people may have been killed, have lingered as a kind of national trauma.”

While student discontent may have been simmering beneath the surface for over 40 years, Colin insisted the 132 movement’s eruption was completely accidental.

He was among a group of 131 students at the Ibero-American University who heckled Pena Nieto on May 10, when the presidential candidate allegedly showed up for a conference at their college with a group of young people paid to cheer for him.

Members of Pena Nieto’s party wrote off the dissenting students as “manipulated youth from outside the university.” In response, the 131 students posted a video on the Internet in which each of them brandished their student ID card. The “132” refers to any other student, or dissatisfied voter, who wishes to join the movement.

#YoSoy132 was a worldwide trending topic on the micro-blogging website Twitter for several days. Its ability to mobilise youth through the Internet has even earned it the moniker “the Mexican spring” - in reference to the 2011 Arab Spring movements - in local papers.

Media manipulation

More impressive than 132’s success on social media networks has been the movement’s ability to weigh in on an otherwise lacklustre presidential campaign.

According to Ulises Corona, a professor of political science at UNAM, the student movement homed in on one of the major problems of the presidential election: the media’s tendency to turn the election into a personality contest and turn away from the difficulties facing ordinary Mexicans.

“It’s a fact that Pena Nieto is a very telegenic candidate, that he’s an easy sell,” said Corona, “It’s true the media ignore discussing the country’s real problems, the lack of education, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of so many other things.”

Facing accusations of favouritism and manipulation, television networks have begun giving ample coverage to the 132 movement.

Uncertain future

Despite the recent setback, Pena Nieto still looks poised to trump 132 and become Mexico’s next president. Opinion polls show him a full 15 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, left-wing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Moreover, members of 132 say they are fending off attempts by Lopez Obrador to infiltrate the movement and take it over. “[Obrador] is trying to take ownership of the movement, but he hasn’t been able to,” said student leader Colin. “We are, and will remain, non-partisan.”

Colin added the group would remain an “independent and critical” political force after the election, and Pena Nieto and the PRI needed to understand that the status quo would “no longer be tolerated.”

The UNAM’s Corona, however, thought there was little chance 132 could continue to mobilize large protests after election day. “They may become a group of intellectuals,” Corona said, adding that Mexico “lacked the political culture” to sustain a grass-roots opposition movement.

After decades of complacency and silence, it is up to Mexico’s student movement to prove it is not only short-lived media hype.

Main image by MaloMalverde used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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