By William Booth, published in The Washington Post
MEXICO CITY — Compared with historic, brutal, high-stakes presidential elections here in the past, this has been an important but blah campaign season in Mexico. But recent protests by college students and other young people have added a spark.
Members of the under-25 demographic are calling out the country’s duopolistic media companies and politically cozy broadcasters as propaganda masters and kingmakers — while warning that the front-running candidate, the telegenic Cheshire Cat named Enrique Peña Nieto, is an empty suit.
The only problem with this narrative is that more young people support Peña Nieto than his challengers, according to the polls, which may make the protests here, led by urban university students, a well-meaning but ultimately meaningless blip.
Yet the stakes, for Mexico, and the United States, are high: a possible comeback by Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran Mexico with an autocratic combination of corruption and coercion for 71 years until it was tossed out in 2000. A month before the vote, Peña Nieto is up in the polls by double digits.
At a dozen large rallies over the past two weeks in several major cities, thousands of young people took to the streets to protest what they see as media manipulation and thwarted democracy. One of the signs read: “Peña Nieto — the television is yours, the streets are ours!”
Peña Nieto, 45, is married to a soap-opera star from the Televisa network, and his critics say he has received overwhelmingly favorable coverage from the No. 1 broadcaster, which reaches 70 percent of Mexican households.
“We are not against Enrique Peña Nieto, but we are against his attempt to impose, by an unethical business community and by the political class, a conspiracy to elect him,” said Rodrigo Serrano, a spokesman for the youth group. “We do not want a return of the old regime.”
The other youth demographic
Some enthusiastic participants have compared the youth street actions and dramatically sincere YouTube videos, driven by Facebook and Twitter, to the Arab Spring. Except that Mexico is a fully functioning democracy, with an elected president who is leaving peacefully at the end of his single, constitutionally mandated six-year term.
Others have compared the youth protests to the Occupy movement in the United States. They say the students have a good point, if not a detailed agenda, that this is a corporate, scripted presidential campaign that does not include vigorous debate or any real access to the candidates, outside their made-for-TV rallies and speeches. And so far, they point out, a single, stilted debate was not even aired on major television channels — nor have the candidates faced real press conferences or town hall audience.
Trailing in the polls are the leftist stalwart and a former Mexico City mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and the ruling conservative National Action Party candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota.
According to the latest surveys by the independent Mitofsky group, Peña Nieto is winning 34 percent of the vote among 18-to-25-year-olds, with his two opponents trailing in the same age group with 20 percent.
“Peña Nieto is viewed not as the return of an anachronistic party but as a fresh new voice by a third of voters — the young — many of whom are too young to remember life in the PRI one-party state,” security analyst Jorge Chabat said.
The youth vote helped elect the conservative former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox in 2000 and almost got Lopez Obrador into office in 2006.
“The student movement, while representative of a certain sector — middle- to upper-class youth — is not representative of the nation as a whole,” said Rodrigo Aguilera, Mexico analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Peña Nieto’s support in this demographic has always been weak even before the movement began.”
Jeered by ‘fresas’
Yet pollsters are seeing some movement against Peña Nieto from the protests.
“Even though Peña Nieto is youngest, he has lost points in this segment of the population,” since the protests began, said Roy Campos, a Mitofsky pollster.
The student movement started May 11 when Peña Nieto was jeered during an appearance at the Ibero-American University for his role as governor of the state of Mexico in calling in police to put down a 2006 protest by flower vendors, which resulted in mass arrests and left two dead. After some in the audience shouted “assassin,” Peña Nieto left the stage.
Ibero-American University is a private college attended mostly by the well-to-do children of Mexico’s elites, called “fresas,” or strawberries.
Immediately after the incident, some PRI supporters said the students had been infiltrated by operatives for Peña Nieto’s leftist opponent. “They were too organized to be students,” one PRI official said on the radio.
Indignant, the students responded with a video, which went viral, where some of the 131 students present held their student ID cards up to the camera and denounced PRI statements.
And so the movement was born.
Demand for debate
At a protest this week, the students presented a letter to the interior minister, Alejandro Poire, demanding that he force all broadcasters, radio and television, to air the second, and likely last, presidential debate, scheduled for June 10.
The broadcast of the first debate on May 6 stirred controversy when TV Azteca declined to air it on its major channels — because there was a semifinal soccer match at the same hour. The station’s billionaire owner, Ricardo Salinas, taunted critics via his Twitter account that the sports event would get higher ratings.
It did not.
The youth protests, wherever they go, have created debate about what they mean among Mexico’s chattering classes.
Jorge Castaneda, who served as foreign minister under Fox, said the young protesters seem too vague and naive in their aims to achieve much — a criticism heard by mainstream pundits in the United States about the Occupy movement.
John Ackerman, a university professor in Mexico, defended the young people, saying they might not remember a PRI government but they know media manipulation when they see it.
The leaders of the youth marches say they have already achieved concrete results — the biggest TV company in Mexico, Televisa, has announced that it will air the next debate on its most watched channel.