They call themselves the fifth power.
Empowered by social media and tech savvy, thousands of students in Mexico have taken to the streets this past week to protest presidential election coverage they believe is slanted toward an apparent frontrunner of the party that ruled the country uninterrupted for 71 years.
Students from diverse universities, public and private, are suddenly becoming a force to be reckoned with prior to the country’s July 1 presidential election. Some are dubbing it the Mexican Spring, after the Middle East uprisings, and Mexico Despierta, “Mexico Awakens.” Like the Arab Spring movements in Egypt and Tunisia, these are fueled by social media – through text messages, photos and videos spread through YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
Mexico hasn’t experienced such a movement since the 1968 worker and student protests held against the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico, mostly through corruption and fraud, from 1929-2000.
“The End of the Silence,” writer Raymundo Riva Palacio called it in his Eje Central column after tens of thousands of young people marched in Mexico City and in 30 cities across the nation on Saturday, May 19 to protest against PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, whom they claim has been declared the virtual victor and given preferential treatment in most media, as has been the case for decades in Mexico.
“With the feeling that there is an oppressive political force, these young Mexicans have injected a new dynamic force to the election process,” Riva Palacio wrote. “There should be a study to see if what we’re seeing in universities and in the streets is or isn’t a phenomenon..Are these young people telling us they will massively vote? Or is it that there’s a generational divide like never before?”
It started innocently enough. On May 11, the 45-year-old Pena Nieto spoke at the Universidad Iberoamericana, a Jesuit-run private institution that caters to the upper-classes, and was booed by several hundred students. The PRI made light of that protest, saying the students were political plants and sympathizers of leftist candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador, running second in presidential polls after Pena Nieto.
The PRI claim was repeated by much of the country’s print and television media, primarily the Televisaconglomerate that dominates the airwaves. It didn’t help that a week earlier on May 8, Lopez Obrador gave the popular journalist and anchorwoman Carmen Aristegui documents allegedly proving Pena Nieto paid Televisa millions of dollars for positive coverage when he was governor of the state of Mexico, from 2005 to 2011.
Following the Iberoamericana protest, 131 students made a You Tube video showing their credentials to prove they were indeed enrolled at the university and didn’t belong to a political party. The 131 figure has now blossomed into a burgeoning call-to-arms movement called “Somos mas de 131″ (We are more than 131) and the Twitter hashtag “LaMarchSomos132,” to include anyone who joins the original 131.
That hashtag has been a top trend on Twitter for eight days straight. Under that hashtag, that protest last Saturday ballooned to 46,000 people, mostly young, marching to Mexico City’s famed Angel Monument, a rallying point for soccer and political victories.
On July 1, an estimated 14 million young people will vote in Mexico’s presidential election, and roughly 3.4 million will cast ballots for the first time. Whether they are enough to alter an outcome remains to be seen.
“I believe in this movement, I believe young people have a great power in their hands,” student Paula Diaz told CNN en Espanol. “We have information and the (Internet) media just like the others. We think we can do something big.”
[Photos by Ismael Villafranco]