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After Mexican election results, what's next for the youth of YoSoy123?

Lauren VillagranThe Christian Science Monitor

When student protestors took to the streets after a government tribunal dismissed charges of fraud and upheld the results of Mexico’s July presidential election last month, they said they mourned “the death of democracy.” But not the end of their movement.

Known for its Twitter hash tag, #YoSoy132 emerged before this summer’s presidential election in opposition to what the students called favoritism by the television media for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto. Mr. Peña Nieto ultimately won the election with 38 percent of the vote in a field of four.

The election now settled, many are questioning what YoSoy132 will do next. Their No. 1 goal remains fair access to information and the “democratization” of Mexico’s media, according to a message emitted to coincide with President Felipe Calderón’s sixth and final state of the union address earlier this month. But the ad-hoc student movement, criticized early on for its lack of organization and focus, is still struggling to create a unified message, leaving some to question its significance and potential to endure in Mexico today.

“The problem with the movement is not whether it continues to have a voice; it’s that it has too many,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor of political studies at Mexico City’s CIDE research center. “The internal diversity at times appears to overpower [the group’s] capacity to deliver coherent and effective messages.”

From nonpolitical marches against media manipulation to the “taking” of government buildings in the state of Veracruz to behind-the-scenes work on proposals for public policy, the private and public university students who consider themselves a part of the YoSoy132 movement differ as much on method as message.

That diversity is a source of strength, says Antonio Attolini, a political science student at Mexico City’s private Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM).

“It’s always a strength to have a lot of voices that come from different perspectives,” says Mr. Attolini, who has emerged as a sort of articulator of a movement that has no leadership and no spokesperson. “This fuels us, and it’s necessary in a democracy as hurt and weak as Mexico’s. It’s a rarity that a movement like this exists. No one is used to it.”

A youth identity

The PRI ruled Mexico for seven decades in a pseudo-democracy in which elections were often marred by opacity and fraud, but it lost its hold on presidential power in 2000 for the first time since its 1929 founding. As Peña Nieto rose in the polls this year and many media outlets treated his victory as a foregone conclusion, some Mexicans feared a return to the cronyism that characterized the PRI of the past. The young, telegenic Peña Nieto promised voters he leads an evolved PRI "of today," and analysts say his victory is proof that Mexico's democracy is stronger than ever.

YoSoy132 emerged last spring after the PRI discredited student protesters at a campaign speech Peña Nieto gave at the private Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. Party leaders suggested the students weren’t students at all but agitators bussed in to cause trouble. The television media echoed the party’s claims.

So a student at the university posted a video compilation online in which 131 other students, showing their student IDs, professed their legitimate opposition to Peña Nieto. The moniker “I Am 132” was born as people voiced support via social networks.

This is the first time since 1968 – when the government’s often brutal repression of student protests culminated in a massacre at Tlatelolco plaza – that students have united in a movement defined by their youth, says Helen Varela Guinot, director of the Iberoamerican University’s Department of Social Sciences and Politics.

Students have participated in politics in the decades since the ‘60s, Ms. Varela Guinot says, but they haven't again discovered a group identity or defined their participation as a mass movement until now.

“YoSoy132 radically changed the perspective of young people and their position toward politics,” Varela Guinot says.

A youth that is politically aware and involved only serves to strengthen a society that has become more openly critical of its government, she says.

Political impact

But despite the new political awakening among youth inspired by YoSoy132, Mr. Bravo Regidor questions how, without leadership, the movement can effectively achieve its varied goals.

These goals include a more “just” and “sustainable” economic model, a new approach to national security, universal health care, and a “transformation” in which social movements have a greater voice in politics. YoSoy132 expresses broad disagreement with Mexico’s current path (for example, the use of the military to fight organized crime) and professes that its own “fight is in favor of health, justice, liberty, and democracy.”

“I think its impact could be in constituting a sort of nonpartisan social opposition to Peña Nieto’s government,” Bravo Regidor says, although maintaining political autonomy and its own identity “is not going to be easy, frankly.”

That’s evident in the flocking of many students to events held by second-place candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, although the movement has been explicitly nonpartisan and did not collectively support a candidate during the election. On Sunday, students wearing YoSoy132 T-shirts arrived at Mexico City’s Zocalo plaza – not en masse, but individually or with friends – to hear Mr. Lopez Obrador speak. He announced his break with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which supported him during the past two elections, and plans to create a new party out of an already existing political organization. In addition, he vowed to launch a national campaign to “democratize” the media – a key demand of the YoSoy132 movement.

“The election was a fraud,” says Manuel Pintor Trejo, a student at the Iberoamerican University, as he passed out white flags printed with “R.I.P. Democracy” and the YoSoy132 logo. “We aren’t going to sit back like the adults who are resigned to accept the PRI.”

The PRI's reaction to the original student protests at the Iberoamerican University – first discrediting the students, then later ignoring their call for a third, student-directed debate in which the other three candidates participated – was seen by many in the movement as regressive in the context of Mexico's democracy.

Stopping short of saying whether he voted for Lopez Obrador, Mr. Trejo says, "We support a change."

Peña Nieto officially takes office Dec. 1 and he has already announced a series of proposed reforms, including expanding the reach of the government's freedom of information agency. Given that the country's electoral tribunal dismissed the PRD's complaint of fraud, the students who oppose the election results will now have to take a different tack, says Varela Guinot.

“What remains to be seen is how they continue to mobilize around other issues,” she says.

Attolini admits he doesn’t know exactly where the movement is going, but “the important point is that YoSoy132 can be you or me acting to change our community.”

“People are always making demands,” he says. “It’s time to act. We need to offer a new path.”