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The Left Makes Noise in Mexico

Mexico City.

You can blame it on those damn students. Ever since over a hundred of them at a private university, the Iberoamericana in Mexico City, ran presidential frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto off campus with cries of “Coward!” and “Get out!” on May 11, the favorite for July’s election has been under popular siege. It’s quickly blossomed into an entire movement known as “#YoSoy132” (“I am 132”) – named for the 131 students who produced a video following the incident, swearing that, contrary to the spin, they were ordinary citizens and puppets of no political force.

With some 40 million Internet users nationwide, this was hyped from the get-go as Mexico’s first fully-Facebooked, tweeted and YouTubed election. Now “#YoSoy132” has gone viral and the country’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) has suggested that the youth vote could sway the outcome of the July 1 clash. Nearly 40% of registered voters are below the age of 30.

The beauty of “#YoSoy132” – which has expressed solidarity with Mexico’s Movement for Peace, as well as Occupy – is that it not only opposes the return of the country’s former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but also the venomous influence of corporate media duopoly Televisa/TV Azteca (aka PRI-TV) in national affairs. On a typical day, Televisa’s rabidly pro-Peña Nieto coverage makes Fox News look balanced.

The PRI, which dominated Mexican politics for 71 years, has led the polls for months due to widespread disillusionment with President Felipe Calderon’s right-wing National Action Party (PAN). Yet, just like the PAN, the PRI represents only a handful of special interests in a country marred by poverty, gang violence, and scant opportunities for young people, seven million of whom are without jobs or studies.

Anti-PRI protests have taken place nationwide, with slogans such as “The Mexican Spring” being thrown around, but crucially, there are just four weeks left until election-day. Peña Nieto still leads almost every poll that emerges as many seem prepared to put their faith in a return of the old guard after a disastrous twelve years with the PAN at the helm.

Attending the Mexico-CARICOM summit in Barbados last week, much-maligned President Calderon – who leaves office either way in December – couldn’t resist a wry smile. “Usually, people protest the party that’s in power,” he said.

The question is which candidate benefits from the burgeoning youth movement. #YoSoy132 claims to be non-partisan but the most obvious beneficiary is leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and Progressive Movement coalition. Depending on which poll you believe, AMLO’s challenge has strengthened post-#YoSoy132. A former Mexico City mayor and stalwart of the Mexican Left, he’s undoubtedly the most popular candidate with young people, and has been actively encouraging them to use the Internet to overcome the propaganda spun by the TV networks.

“We Have a Memory”

The irony is that most of those involved in the #YoSoy132 movement are too young to remember life under the PRI dictatorship. Yet the darker side of the 71 years of PRI rule is well-documented. Marches still take place annually to commemorate the some 400 student protesters (nobody knows the exact number) massacred by security forces at the Plaza of Three Cultures in Mexico City in 1968. Everybody knows about the PRI’s “dirty war” of the 1970s-‘90s, whereby another untold number of Mexicans were murdered, imprisoned or disappeared. Everybody knows about PRI presidents Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo, and their ties to the drug-trafficking mafia currently butchering people around the country.

The PAN, which took power when Mexico transitioned to democracy in 2000, isn’t really wanted either. Unemployment and poverty have soared under the neoliberal administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon. President Calderon’s US-backed militarization of the “Drug War” has left some 60,000 people dead and as many as 20,000 missing. Counterinsurgency ops and old-fashioned intimidation continue in impoverished states such as Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero – all under the mask of a “war on drugs”.

AMLO and the PRD are the only left-leaning alternative, but the problem is that the Mexican Left isn’t particularly united. The country’s most vibrant and high-profile social movement, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which opposes both the drug mafia and the government’s policy of militarization, has notably distanced itself from AMLO as the election nears.

On Monday, all four presidential candidates met with representatives from the Peace Movement at Mexico City’s historic Chapultepec Castle. The movement’s symbolic leader, the poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered in March 2011, had recently joined #YoSoy132 in a protest outside Televisa’s studios on May 22. The encounter between Sicilia and the candidates was a thousand times more revealing than the farce of an “official” television debate that the Federal Electoral Institute staged on May 6.

“For you, the 60,000 dead mean nothing,” Sicilia told the four candidates, all of whom have more or less backed a continuation of the “war on drugs”, before stating that Mexico suffered from a “serious social and political Alzheimer’s”. All three major parties have had members linked to drug-trafficking, and Sicilia accused them of failing to clean their ranks of “those who hide behind impunity and collude with crime.”

That’s not to say that many from the Peace Movement and #YoSoy132 will not opt for the leftist party, and certainly, AMLO is looking to capitalize on the current protests. On May 22, the PRD announced it was taking out a US$8 million loan to finance a late surge in the race. Peña Nieto, who has all kinds of interests backing him, has already been accused of overspending. In Mexico City alone, he’s allegedly splashed out US$6.5 million of the $24 million campaign limit.

The mainstream media may write it off as grubby students making noise, but like the Occupy movement and “Los Indignados” of Spain, #YoSoy132 is a manifestation of the anger and frustration young Mexicans feel at the political and economic course their country is taking. While it remains to be seen if the movement can capture the public imagination enough to influence the outcome of the vote, it has already made waves in the electoral debate.

One of its more concrete demands was for media giants Televisa and TV Azteca to broadcast the second presidential debate on June 10 on its main channels. Azteca refused to show the first debate – supposedly because it clashed with a soccer game – and Televisa relegated it to a secondary channel in what was widely viewed as an attempt by the networks to protect Peña Nieto, who rarely shines when speaking off-script. #YoSoy132 protesters have since claimed a victory in forcing Televisa – the biggest mass-media company in the Spanish-speaking world – to “listen to the people” (Televisa’s words) and broadcast the forthcoming debate on its flagship channel. TV Azteca announced Tuesday it will follow suit.

Another demand set forth by #YoSoy132 is for more citizens to register as election observers in a bid to prevent the kind of fraud that has been commonplace in Mexican elections over the years. Indeed, the 2006 presidential result was highly disputed by second-placed candidate AMLO, although the Federal Electoral Institute controversially refused a recount.

If the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto does indeed win the election on July 1, it’s unlikely any Mexican president will have faced greater public opposition before taking office. The PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota, who has run an absolutely lackluster campaign, would appear to be out of the race. For his part, AMLO will be hoping for popular discontent to fuel a late surge by the Left and achieve what the PRI has traditionally excelled in; stealing an election from under the nose of the favorite.

Paul Imison is a journalist living in Mexico City. He can be reached at: paulimison@hotmail.com 

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