Miguel Perez Navidad was twelve years old when he first realized that Mexican politicians were corrupt. It was election day and he was on holiday visiting his aunt in her village just outside Mexico City. He recounts how members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) started threatening people who were lining up to vote. “They just took hold of people and starting dragging people away,” he stated. “From then on I knew that I would never vote for this party.”
After 71 years of one party rule, the PRI finally fell in the year 2000. But if the polls are correct, the party is set for a comeback in this year’s elections. The PRI’s new leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, has distanced himself from the old regime, but it has not been enough to quell the fears of people such as Miguel. Voices of discontent have began to grow. On Saturday, a crowd of tens of thousands of people marched through the capital against Peña Nieto and the possible return of the PRI.
The mood was festive as groups of students, grass root organizations and individuals gathered in the city’s main square. With chants of “Not even one vote for the PRI” and “Out Peña” the crowd started moving. They sung as they moved forward, many wearing black t-shirts with anti PRI slogans. There were cheers and clapping as those standing on the sidewalk showered their support. “Join us, join us,” the marchers chanted.
Holding a bunch of roses in one hand and information about the PRI in the other, Andrea, a 22-year-old student from one of the city’s public universities, hopes the march will really make a difference to the way people vote. She approaches a man, offers him a flower and then starts explaining the reasons for the march. One of her main concerns is the PRI’s manipulation of the media.
Earlier this month, Peña Nieto was forced to cut short a visit to a private university in Mexico City because the event was picketed by a large group of students. The next day, many newspapers and media outlets twisted the story claiming that his visit had been a success. In response, students marched on one of the main television stations demanding greater impartiality in election coverage. They say that that many media outlets have been paid off by Peña Nieto’s party. In May an article published in the right-wing newspaper Reforma showed that Peña Nieto had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last six years for mentions in the media; a common practice under the previous PRI administration.
For many, the media blackout is an ominous sign of things to come. Andrea explains that a free media had been practically nonexistent during the governance of the PRI. What worries her and many students is that the return of the PRI will bring with severe restrictions on freedom of speech.
Attempts by Peña Nieto’s party to discredit those students involved in the protest against him has only served to further fan the flames of discontent. Divisions that once existed between private and public university students are now being overcome as students from other universities speak up in support. “I was so surprised when I saw that students from a private university were protesting against Peña Nieto,” says Andrea. “Peña Nieto made the mistake of thinking that students were not interested in politics. Well, here we are proving him wrong.”
For many on the march it will be the first time voting. They were too young to really remember what it was like living under the PRI, but they have heard enough stories from their parents. There is also concern about Peña Nieto’s track record as governor in the State of Mexico. Coral, a 23-year-old student, is holding a sign with a picture of Peña Nieto’s face with the word femicide written below. “This is to remind people of the women that were raped in Atenco,” she says referring to a clash between police and protesters in the State of Mexico in 2006 in which two people died and dozens of women were sexually assaulted. “I hope people wake up and realise who this man is and look at his track record in politics,” she states.
For Gabriela Arenez, a 40-year-old mother, the march is a chance to show that she supports change. “I am tied of all the lies, of corrupt governments with no scruples and I am tired of what they have done to Mexico,” she states. She says that she found out about the march through her daughter. The event was organised on social networking sites and even rumours that violent mobs were planning to disrupt the march could not keep her away. “The thought of the PRI returning to power not only scares me, it causes me to really panic,” she says.
The crowd cheered as it reached the focal point for the protest. The sound of drumming and chanting faded out as people stood together to sing the national anthem. Standing among them is 62-year-old Gloria Salinas. She expresses surprise at the number of people protesting. “It is wonderful to see so much support, to hear the cars beep as they go by and to see people giving us the thumbs up,” she states. “Mexico must have woken up now,” she continues. “I don’t know how long we can go on ignoring such injustice in this country. How can it be that people have such short memories?”