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Students invigorate Mexico's presidential polls

26 june 2012, 15:00
Mexican studens. ©AFP
Mexican studens. ©AFP
Mexico's student protest movement has taken off in the last weeks, injecting youthful energy and enthusiasm into an otherwise lethargic presidential campaign ahead of Sunday's vote, AFP reports.

Observers see the student movement as a breath of fresh air for Mexico's democracy, even though the so-called "Mexican Spring" may have arrived too late to impact the elections in the short-term.

Polls show Enrique Pena Nieto, candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which ruled Mexico for much of the last century, coasting to victory on Sunday and ousting the ruling conservative National Party (PAN).

But the strength of the student movement in recent weeks could give it a lasting voice in the months ahead.

"In Mexico nothing has happened like what is going on right now. There have never been so many recognized spokespeople of local student assemblies," said Antonio Attolini, one of the movement's visible faces.

The wind of change was sparked when students at the private Iberoamerican University loudly jeered Pena Nieto at a campus rally on May 11.

PRI operatives maintained the protesters were not students at all, dubbing them provocateurs from the campaign of leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The students, outraged when that explanation was repeated on the TV news and in the main newspapers, posted a video on YouTube identifying themselves and posing next to their student ID.

There were 131 student protesters, and they invited viewers to become the 132nd member. The movement is now known by its Twitter handle, #YoSoy132 -- or "I am 132."

Similar protests quickly spread to state universities.

Movement leaders say that #YoSoy132 supports no political party, but it opposes the country's free-market economic policies and the election of Pena Nieto, who will return the PRI to power after a 12-year hiatus if elected.

The PRI ran Mexico for 71 years through a combination of patronage, corruption and ballot-box fraud until they were ousted in 2000.

It had been an arrangement that promoted stability. Mexico remained free of the military coups that plagued other Latin American nations for decades, but the price in return was a lack of tolerance for any dissent.

During their first protest, the students marched outside the headquarters of Televisa, Mexico's leading TV network, waving signs and chanting slogans like "Turn off the television, turn on your mind" and "Televisa turns you into an idiot."

The students accuse the country's de facto TV duopoly -- Televisa and TV Azteca -- of a conspiracy along with some large newspapers and large business conglomerates to return the PRI to power.

A whopping 90 percent of Mexicans get their political news from TV against three percent that rely on newspapers, according to a March survey by Defoe consultants.

Much of the student effort has been focused online, which limits their impact. Only one in three Mexicans say they have Internet access, according to census figures. And the overwhelming majority go online not at home but at work, at Internet cafes or at college and school.

Alvaro Batres, a student at the Hidalgo state university in central Mexico, said that at this point "the main thing is to explain to the public what the movement is through flyers, loudspeaker announcements, cultural activities and through music and dance."

The protest movement appears to be growing, at least in Mexico City.

A May 23 march in the capital organized online drew some 10,000 people. A second march on June 10 gathered more than 90,000, and a third march is being organized for Wednesday, the last day of legal campaigning.

The students on June 19 organized an online presidential debate, and all the candidates except Pena Nieto -- who was represented by an empty seat -- showed up.

They also organized a large concert in Mexico City with local pop singers, and have registered 1,500 observers to monitor the presidential election.

But the further you go from the capital, the weaker the student movement becomes.

In Pachuca, capital of Hidalgo state just north of Mexico City, only about 1,000 people turned up for a recent march.

In some rural villages the students are openly rejected. "There have been some violent reactions against us, they tell us to leave," said Batres.

But protest organizers remain hopeful.

"Lately middle-aged women, retired people, and members of the Mexican Electrician's union marched with us," said Dana Corres, a spokesperson for the students in Hidalgo.

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