Mexico’s Emerging Student Movement Shakes Up Election Dynamics

Amidst a generally dull election season, an incipient social movement calling itself “I’m132” (YoSoy132) is shaking up the presidential campaigns. This decentralized and apparently nonpartisan movement is composed of thousands of students and young people and relies heavily on social media to organize and communicate. Its members appear to be united against what they perceive as a biased media and entrenched vested interests; they demonstrate a clear opposition to PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN), as they perceive his party and his candidacy as embodiments of the status quo.

YoSoy132 is notable for having moved beyond the online realm and gaining support and press coverage at a national level. The students have already staged protests in various cities throughout the country and have been profiled by all the major media outlets.

Origin of the Movement

The movement traces its origins to a mass student protest on May 11th when EPN visited the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. During that event, the PRI candidate was widely booed as he entered the university auditorium and was heckled during his speech. This was an unprecedented moment for EPN’s campaign, as it was the first time that an unplanned event had so noticeably affected the candidate’s tightly orchestrated public appearances.

Videos of the incident began appearing on the web and were echoed by print media. Still, the media conglomerate Televisa, which has often been accused of supporting EPN, did not cover the university protest. Meanwhile, the PRI accused outside meddlers of staging the protest at the university and insinuated that opposition parties had paid the participant.

The students fought back, producing a video in which 131 students stated that they were acting independently. This video inspired the movement’s name. The students became particularly angered by the skewed media coverage of the event and began organizing a protest to express their rejection of EPN’s candidacy. On May 19th, roughly 20,000 protesters participated in a massive, yet peaceful, march on Mexico City’s main avenue, Reforma.

National Dimension

Since the first protest in Mexico City, students have staged related marches around the country, principally in large urban centers such as Guadalajara, Monterrey, Queretaro, Zacatecas and Puebla. The protests outside the capital have tended to take on a more anti-EPN attitude. In Queretaro last week, protesters tried to block EPN’s entrance to one of his campaign events. The emergence of similar protests outside of the capital is an important display of power for the group. Mexico City is seen as a bastion of anti-PRI sentiment, so by spreading outside of the city, the movement has been able to dispel arguments that it was merely a regional phenomenon.


YoSoy132 is quickly evolving into the most important student movement in Mexico since the famed 1968 student protests against the centralized PRI government, which ended with the murder of at least 50 students by the Diaz Ordaz administration in what is known as the Tlatelolco massacre. Whereas the student movement of 1968 was regarded as socially divisive, YoSoy132 cuts across the socioeconomic divide among youth.

Before the start of the movement, there was a general feeling of apathy surrounding the presidential elections, especially due to the seeming invincibility of the PRI candidate. As a result, the surge of the student movement came as a surprise.

Achievements So Far

The student movement is now garnering an overwhelming amount of press coverage, with most columnists taking the protests seriously and saying that this type of movement is long overdue. The print media, which has been especially supportive, has made a strong effort to engage with the students and respond to their calls for informed, unbiased reporting.

So far, the movement’s main achievements have been more general than tangible. Most importantly, the students have forced EPN to distance himself from some of the vested interests that support him. Similarly, the movement’s focus on the media and the upcoming June 10th presidential debate has resulted in both Televisa and TV Azteca deciding to air the debate on their flagship channels.

Finding a Message of Their Own

Although the movement arose out of a protest against the PRI and the status quo, the current message has evolved to a call for general democratic principles, such as impartial media coverage, informed voting and weaker vested interest groups.

On May 24th, the students presented a platform, which demanded democratization of the media and unbiased reporting. The students also expressed their opposition to the political establishment and the role of crooked politicians like the leader of the National Teachers Union, Elba Esther Gordillo, and the leader of the PEMEX labor union, Carlos Romero Deschamps.

Despite a clear anti-PRI bent, the main student movement continually affirms its nonpartisan identity and rejects being orchestrated or funded by any political party, particularly the PRD.

Political Reactions

Although EPN and the PRI leadership initially criticized the university students, they have since adjusted their stance. Facing print media and public support for the students’ right to freedom of expression, PRI president Joaquin Coldwell retracted previous criticism of the students. EPN has similarly stated he will respect the students’ rights to voice their opinions, even creating a television ad promoting this message. However, in keeping with the PRI’s tight control over his campaign, EPN will not be attending any further university events.

Interestingly, PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who has seemingly benefited from the movement’s drive, has not tried to commandeer the movement and has in fact called on the political class to respect the nonpartisan nature of the group. The PAN presidential candidate has lauded the group, while being extremely careful in her comments—as she could also be the target of future anti-establishment protests.

Limited Effect on the Elections

International media has also given the movement top coverage, with some outlets calling it the “Mexican Spring,” in reference to the Arab Spring of 2011. Despite this weighty epitaph, we do not believe that the student movement will take on dimensions comparable to those of the Arab Spring, or even the recent student protests in Spain and Russia. Instead, we see the YoSoy132 movement as setting the framework for increased public participation in politics by young people.

One common question is how the incipient social movement will affect the elections. With only a month left in the campaign season, the movement comes too late to turn the tide of the election. The distance between the PRI and the PRD candidates has shrunk, but only marginally. Given the PRD’s severe organizational challenges, we do not see the movement benefiting AMLO in any meaningful way.

At this point, the movement’s impact remains very limited both in terms of geography and age. Although vocal, the YoSoy132 movement is primarily composed of relatively affluent, urban and educated youths, who only represent a slice of this enormous demographic.

Furthermore, as an internet-based social movement, YoSoy132 will have difficulties expanding to more marginalized youth voters outside of Mexico City who are not as well-connected to the internet. As a result, the movement is more poised to polarize the election than sway independent voters, who currently constitute roughly 20% of the electorate.

To What Extent Will AMLO Benefit from the Movement?

Although some speculate that AMLO’s recent surge is tied to the student movement, we believe this is only partially true. It can be argued that the student protests have opened the door to younger middle-class voters who had previously felt disenchanted by the PRD candidate. Yet we consider JVM’s failure to connect with the public and construct an effective political narrative to be the single most important factor behind AMLO’s rise.

On the other hand, recent polls confirm that young voters on the whole prefer EPN to any other candidate. According to a May 29th Consulta Mitofsky poll, 34% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 support EPN, while JVM and AMLO each have 20% support.

Doubts About the Future

Doubts have been raised about the duration and effectiveness of the movement. Given the group’s horizontal leadership, disorganization could be an issue. Still, this style has been common among other successful youth movements around the world, especially those relying on social networks. Another potential downfall is the emergence of factions, as members represent a variety of interests and ideologies. As new protests arise, it is unclear which are linked to YoSoy132, and which are inspired by this group or are acting separately.

If the student protesters maintain a positive, peaceful and policy-oriented focus, the YoSoy132 movement could evolve into a serious opposition voice during and after the elections.

Final Remarks

Despite its shortcomings and unclear future, the budding student movement is a positive development for the elections and democracy in general. Although the movement can do little to alter the election results, it has the potential to become a counterweight to the likely return of the PRI’s monolithic politics. With the PRI poised to control the presidency, both houses of Congress, and a large majority of governorships, the possibility of a radically reduced opposition voice in national politics remains an important risk for Mexico’s young democracy.

6 Responses to "Mexico’s Emerging Student Movement Shakes Up Election Dynamics"

  1. Walter   May 31, 2012 at 10:59 am

    "Although the movement can do little to alter the election results…"

    But with the huge number of undecideds, couldn't it have a big impact? If you look at the history of Mexico, when the poor and rural people get involved things really change, and that is where AMLO could pick up support, even without heavy reliance on social media.

  2. Ramiro   June 2, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Living in Mexico, I know that things have changed since EPN's visit to Universidad Iberoamericana. Never before had such strong a movement arised against a political figure in Mexico. It is well-known in the country that those polls are, if not completely made up, at least very partial. No one I know has ever answered one of those polls, but on the other hand, polls on facebook and other social media tell another different story: a crushing preference for AMLO. One example: the day after the first debate some newspapers had on the front page that a poll had shown that nearly 40% of the population thought that EPN had won the debate. The debate ended around 11:40 pm and the newspapers were being sold at 6:00 am. When did people answer this poll? As for what Walter said above, if one REALLY looks at Mexican history you can see that things went unchanged unltil the upper class decided so. In 2006, people were divided between rich Felipe Calderon and poor AMLO. In these elections, however, more rich people support AMLO, and that by itself is very telling. PRI has always tried to get the so-called "popular vote" and to do so they do things such as hand out free lunches (people call those voters the comelonches, lunch-eaters), and it has found that maybe people nowadays will not support more PRI, but rather give populist AMLO a chance.
    So DO NOT GET FOOLED PEOPLE, rich guys do NOT want EPN, poor guys want AMLO, thus one has to wonder….where does EPN get all that support from? (Rebecca Black is sadly the correct answer, in this more-surreal-than-Dali country)

  3. Axience   November 20, 2012 at 7:45 am

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