Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mexico’s Arab Spring Moment: A Tale of Poverty, Lies, and Corruption

Imposición. That is what tens of thousands of Mexicans are calling the election of their apparent president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, as they take to the streets in protest. Since the July 1 general election of Mexico’s new president and congress, huge demonstrations have rocked the country and garnered international attention. For once, the global media was interested in something other than the ongoing drug war within the country’s borders. As allegations of electoral fraud and vote-buying surfaced just hours into the election, the world turned its attention to a country too often characterized wholly by its nature as America’s drug-and-immigrant mule.

Protesters in Guadalajara. Photo by Marte.

Following the election results, officials placed Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in first and Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in second by about seven percentage points. López Obrador immediately launched a challenge of the results, claiming that the PRI participated in widespread election fraud. Allegations include vote buying outright and with Soriana grocery store gift cards, coercion through labor unions, as well as the use of government programs and food distribution to pressure constituents to vote PRI.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (left) and Enrique Peña Nieto (right, photo by the World Economic Forum).

Anger also mounted at the largest media outlets in the country, which are perceived as being controlled by members of the PRI and other conservative groups. Televisa in particular, the largest of the companies, has come under increasing scrutiny for its ties to Peña Nieto, as well as the network TV Azteca. As a result, on July 27 protesters staged a 24-hour blockade of Televisa’s headquarters in Mexico City. Critics allege that the networks not only provided more favorable coverage to the PRI than its opponents, but also that they have failed to report on the massive protest movement that is sweeping the country.

At its core, a wide constituency of students, labor unions, and members of every social class make up the protest movement. #YoSoy132, the largest student movement, has gained the most attention, as its members are better able to use technology to spread their message, but one look at the crowds attending protests confirms that this is not just a youth movement. It’s not surprising that frustrations touch every corner of Mexican society given the inescapable violence of the drug war, sluggish economic growth, high unemployment, high levels of corruption within official structures, and discontentment with the way that government has been dealing with all of these issues.

People are also distrustful of the PRI due to its history of governing the country. For seven decades prior to 2000, PRI controlled Mexico largely through its patronage networks and by rule of force. That being said, observers report that the atmosphere within the party has shifted considerably towards greater transparency and democracy. However, Peña Nieto’s ties to the PRI old guard do not ease fears that his will be a presidency that returns Mexico to its former authoritarian ways.

Given the striking similarities between the Mexican protests and the Arab Awakening that began in 2011, it is hard not to categorize the movement as belonging in that camp. The central issues and massive protests certainly lend themselves to this analysis. Yet it is unlikely that we will see a toppling of the government or even an over-turning of Peña Nieto’s election. The electoral committee tasked with investigating the charges of election fraud has already found that the results will stand and is unlikely to change this position in the coming months. López Obrador’s case is not helped by the fact that he launched a similar protest that drew the 2006 election out for months when he lost by a much smaller margin.

Protesters in Tijuana. Photo by Christian Javan. 

For the Mexican people, not all indicators point to a bleak future for their political goals. The huge scale of the protest movement has awakened politicians’ fears in every party that the population will no longer stand for the status quo of involvement in the drug trade, corruption at every level, and mishandling of the economy. At the very least, a conversation about transparency and economic growth has begun. With drug-related homicide rates dropping 19 percent since 2011 according to the Trans-Border Institute, citizens may also look forward to a country that does not endanger their lives simply by them living in it.

Whatever the outcome, the Mexico’s next president will have much more on his plate than he can possibly deliver. Hopefully, whoever it is will be able to at least resolve to some degree the daunting issues of personal security, extreme poverty, and government transparency. Until then, the Mexican protest movement will have the task of keeping these problems in the forefront and not allowing their message to be hijacked by politicians who promise change but deliver more of the same.

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