By Sara Miller Llana, published in Christian Science Monitor
“Welcome to the Mexican spring,” says a young student over a microphone on the campus of Mexico’s most famed university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
“It’s time for change; it is time for a new Mexico,” he continues, met by thunderous applause. Students in the audience are munching on potato chips with hot sauce and lemon and mango-flavored ices, and have gathered for the first general assembly of Mexico’s brand-new student movement known as “#YoSoy132,” or “I am 132.”
The movement rose spontaneously among private university students protesting the way, according to them, Mexico’s television coverage of the presidential election campaign is unfairly boosting the former ruling party. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held power in Mexico for 71 years.
These students have since joined forces with others from public universities and youth across the country, gathering a vast following across social media and receiving generous coverage from local newspapers, which are calling them the new wild card in the July 1 presidential race.
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While they say their primary concern is manipulation of the media in the electoral process, their protests have put the PRI on the defensive more than the party candidate’s rivals have been able to thus far. And while comparing the incipient movement to the Arab Spring is an exaggeration – and they probably won’t be a deciding factor in the election – many are calling #YoSoy132 a wake-up call for the nation’s politicians. Many Mexicans are praising the students for having awoken like their peers from Chile, to Spain, to Egypt, who have taken to the streets to protest unfair government policies and power players in their countries.
“It is not necessarily going to change the way this election goes,” says Enrique Cuna, a sociology professor at the Metropolitan Autonomous University Iztapalapa (UAM) who carried out a recent study on youth voting tendencies with United Nations funding. “But it is putting student demands on the public agenda.”
The movement began after the PRI frontrunner, Enrique Peña Nieto, visited the private Iberoamericano University in Mexico City on May 11, where students confronted him on his record as governor of Mexico state. But when the event was given scant attention by the media, students say, and they were dismissed by the PRI as impostors from rival parties, 131 of them created a YouTube video declaring themselves indeed students. Others joined in, saying they were No. 132, and the name #YoSoy132 has stuck.
The students have since led marches on the streets and to government offices, garnering thousands of supporters. They have also marched to the Televisa network station, which students say has portrayed Peña Nieto in a favorable light – both now and during his stint as the governor of Mexico state.
‘A wake up call to candidates’
Event organizers say that representatives from more than 35 universities were present at yesterday’s meeting. “Mexico, Mexico, Mexico!” they chanted.
Lizette Adauta, a 22-year-old UNAM student wearing glasses and a pink backpack with a water bottle, hops on the university bus outside the social work building where she is studying, and heads to a mass field in the shadow of the library where the university typically gathers for protests. She says this is her first meeting of #YoSoy132, but she has been following it on social media sites, especially Facebook. “The television networks have manipulated all the information about Peña Nieto,” she says.
The broadcasters say they are, as required by law, giving all candidates equal treatment, but the broadcast industry has long been criticized for being concentrated in a few hands and aligning with the conservative and business classes.
The movement is non-partisan, but it is decidedly anti-Peña Nieto. Some signs read “No to the PRI-nosaurs,” a reference to the “dinosaurs” of the old authoritarian regime that only lost control of Mexico in 2000. Another reads, “the PRI will not return.” While many students interviewed yesterday say they are either not voting or voting for the left, none spoke of support for the PRI or the ruling National Action Party (PAN).
This represents the strongest public pushback against Peña Nieto since the campaign began in March. He has enjoyed double-digit leads over his nearest rivals for months. He still has a wide margin, but a poll released by the firm Mitofsky this week showed that his support has fallen 2.3 percentage points – to 35.6 percent – from a poll taken earlier this month. However, his nearest rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), is still far behind at 21.7 percent.
The student protests have stirred up a campaign that critics say has seen more in-fighting than proposed policies. In the first presidential debate last month, many criticized all candidates for attacking and defending one another, instead of focusing on the needs and hopes of the populace.
“This phenomenon is like a wake-up call to the candidates,” says Aurelia Gomez, a professor in the Spanish department at Haverford College who specializes in Mexico’s 1968 student protests. “I think many different sectors of civil society are really tired of having the same kind of candidates, no matter what party they are from. [The students] will be an important variable to take into account.”
Beyond the election
In theory, youths could tip the race: those under 29 represent about 30 percent of potential voters, says Mr. Cuna. But many analysts and students alike say they don’t expect the #YoSoy132 movement to have a major impact on results.
First, many might be anti-PRI but it doesn’t mean they are support an alternative. This is the first time that Osvaldo Fourzan, who is studying economics at UNAM, gets to vote for a president but he says he is planning to spoil his vote. “I don’t feel that anyone in the political class is representing us,” he says.
IN PICTURES – Mexico’s presidential election
He is not alone. In the study carried out by Mr. Cuna, 7 of 10 youths interviewed said they were either not going to vote or doubted they would vote in the upcoming race. Their reason: disillusionment with the state of politics, the rule of law, and the economy.
“But they aren’t abstaining because of apathy,” he says, a point underscored precisely by #YoSoy132. “The movement is a group of urbanized, educated Mexicans coming to the streets to protest the state of democracy in Mexico.”
#YoSoy132’s impact on the race is also limited by demographics and geography. For starters, university students only represent a small segment of society. (One obvious missing group is the millions of so-called “ni-nis,” youth who neither work nor go to school, who have dominated the narrative about youths in Mexico since the global financial crisis.)
The movement is also concentrated in the capital, which tends to be more left-leaning than other parts of the country and doesn’t reflect the nation overall. In fact, the Mitofsky polls show that youths as a percentage of potential voters prefer Peña Nieto to his two rivals on the right and left.
But students and citizens alike say they feel empowered by the #YoSoy132 movement-in-the-making. “I think it’s great that the students have awoken,” says Delia Betan, who works at a daycare center at UNAM and was at the meeting as a form of solidarity, she says.
#YoSoy132 is not the Arab Spring because it’s happening within a democratic framework: No one is trying to overthrow a government. But like protestors in the Middle East or the Occupy movement in the US, protestors do see some parallels, and say the movement should remain in place long after July 1.
“This is what is happening all over the world,” says art student Ricardo Escobar. Students, he says, are fighting for more equality and to ensure that politicians govern for everyone, not just themselves. “Whoever comes to power, we have to keep hammering that message,” he says. “This movement has to go beyond the election.”