There were three candidates, a moderator and an empty chair.
It was a reminder to viewers that Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s presidential frontrunner, chose not to participate in the last debate before the July 1st election.
Josefina Vázquez Mota, of the National Action Party (PAN), Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), and Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, of the Nueva Alianza political party (PANAL) answered questions during the two-hour debate.
The hashtag #Debate132, the name of the event, was a top trend worldwide two weeks ago.
And while this was not an official affair, it did get three presidential candidates to respond to the concerns of some of Mexico’s youth.
Moisés Ortiz, a 17-year old San Francisco resident, told VOXXI he watched the Debate 132 online. He moved from Mexico to the U.S. last year and is very interested in the upcoming elections. He said the debate helped him clarify which candidate best represents his political preferences.
The interactive debate was organized by a recently formed student movement known as “I am number 132.”
On Friday, May 11, Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) visited a private university in Mexico City.
During his appearance at the Ibero-American University, students heckled him for an incident that took place in 2006 when he was governor of Mexico State.
Peña Nieto left the stage and his supporters dismissed the incident as a staged operative by his opponents.
In response, the students produced a video where 131 of them say they are legitimate students and show their school ID cards as proof. The video went viral and thousands across the country joined in support as the “132nd” student. Yo Soy 132, or I am number 132, became the movement’s name.
In subsequent weeks, tens of thousands protested online to what they say is media bias in favor of Peña Nieto using the hashtag #YoSoy132. Someone even composed a song called “Cumbia 132” inspired by the movement. Soon, students took to the streets.
‘MEXICAN SPRING’ IMPACT
Some are comparing the mobilization of Mexican youth to the Arab Spring.
And though Mexico doesn’t live under a dictatorship and the movement’s impact on the electoral results remain to be seen, it’s an important development, says Eric Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
“They are having an impact. I think it’s probably too soon to say that it’s at the level of the Arab Spring,” Olson told VOXXI. “But they have injected some excitement into the race.”
The movement is not supporting any political party, but because it has taken a strong anti-Peña Nieto position, López Obrador has picked up some support as a result of the protests.
In the last few weeks, the double-digit lead Peña Nieto held over second-place López Obrador had narrowed considerably. At one point, on May 31, a poll by Grupo Reforma had the PRI candidate just 4 percentage points over the PRD contender, with 38 and 34 percent respectively.
But a poll released Tuesday by the same group saw the gap increase to 12 points, with 42 percent of participants favoring Peña Nieto and 30 percent favoring López Obrador. Vázquez Mota had 24 percent support and Quadri only 4.
Another poll released Tuesday by Consulta Mitofsky shows Peña Nieto having 37.6 percent support and López Obrador 24.3.
When Grupo Reforma asked poll participants about their perception of the #YoSoy132 movement, 41 percent said it was favorable, 14 percent said it was unfavorable, 15 percent said it was neutral, and the rest hadn’t heard of the movement.
‘A BREATH OF FRESH AIR’
“I think one reason this movement has been popular and has had influence is because it’s authentic,” Olson said. “I think to the extent that it has not been something controlled by any of the political parties, it gives it a certain credibility that other groups don’t have. They’re not as easily dismissed.”
During a Google+ Hangout streamed by Al Jazeera, #YoSoy132 leader Rodrigo Serrano expressed that having a voice is precisely what the group wants.
“Now the young people have noticed that we can be noticed,” said Serrano, an Ibero-American university student. “After the elections, maybe it will be like a symbol, like a flag… is saying that, ‘hey we are here and we need to be heard.’”
Seventeen-year-old Moisés Ortiz is part of the group Yo Soy 132 Bay Area, which consists of students, workers and community leaders who support the message of Mexico’s #YoSoy132. He says he feels the movement has raised the voice of Mexican society in general.
“The good thing is that the movement is of the people. It’s not only the youth’s but also of the people who want to fight for their ideals,” he said.
The bigger question is whether the debate the movement has generated around media bias and media control will have a long-term effect, Olson said.
“It’s hard to think of the impact on the election in the next few days. But if they remain organized, they will have a longer impact in terms of media coverage,” Olson said.
Yo Soy 132 Bay Area group member Raúl Fernández watched the debate. He felt candidates were pretty conservative in their responses as they went over topics like media democratization, the fight against drug violence and sustainability.
But he was very impressed with the innovative format and by how well-informed the students asking questions were.
“It was a breath of fresh air,” said the 45-year old social worker.
He thinks that no matter which direction the movement takes, it will have a big impact on Mexico.
Peña Nieto did not accept the invitation to the Debate 132, but he released a statement saying he acknowledged the value of the movement.
“Whoever will be the next president, the rules have changed forever. They know they are under scrutiny by the community,” said Fernández. “It was necessary.”