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Mexico Votes: Will Occupy-Inspired, Student-Fueled Movement Give Manuel López Obrador an Upset Win?

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As the drug war rages in Mexico, voters will head to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president. Will the PRI come back to power, or could the Occupy-inspired Yo Soy 132 movement help Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor who narrowly lost the 2006 election, pull off an upset? We go to Mexico City to speak with Tania Molina, a journalist at La Jornada, the main progressive national newspaper in Mexico; and John Ackerman, editor of the Mexican Law Review and a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Mexico, where voters head to the polls on Sunday in a historic election to pick President Felipe Calderón’s replacement, as well as candidates in the national legislature, six governorships and 15 state assemblies.

Since Calderón took office six years ago, more than 50,000 Mexicans have been killed in the nation’s bloody drug war. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Calderón’s conservative National Action Party, or PAN, is polling poorly ahead of Sunday’s vote. The two leading candidates have both proposed rethinking how Mexico deals with drug trafficking.

The front-runner in Sunday’s race is Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, the party that ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. In second is leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador who narrowly lost the 2006 race to Calderón.

This is Enrique Peña Nieto speaking at a rally Wednesday.

ENRIQUE PEÑA NIETO: [translated] We are only four days away from winning the presidency of the republic. We are ahead in the polls, but, in a way, this could allow us to be complacent. On the contrary, this is the moment in which we must keep going and assure, with your free participation, your reasoned, informed vote, this July 1st, that we can really accomplish a conclusive victory that can’t be objected to. That’s what we want to accomplish on July 1st.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, Andrés Manuel López Obrador received a surge in popularity, thanks in part to a growing national student movement against the return of the PRI to power.
The movement, known as Yo Soy 132, has been inspired by Occupy Wall Street and the protests in Spain. López Obrador is the former mayor of Mexico City. He addressed his followers on the final day of campaigning.

ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: [translated] I come to tell you that we are doing well. We ended the campaign strongly. The strategy of Peña Nieto’s patrons has failed. Tell the people that there will be justice, because we are going to end corruption. What is it that we’re voting for on 1st of July? We are choosing if we want corruption or if we want honesty. Things are that clear. Voting for the PRI, voting for Peña Nieto is voting for corruption.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to talk more about the elections, we go directly to Mexico City to speak with two guests. Tania Molina is with us, a journalist at La Jornada, the main progressive national newspaper in Mexico. She’s producing a pamphlet for Zuccotti Park Press by and about the Yo Soy 132 student movement in Mexico. And we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by John Ackerman, editor of the Mexican Law Review and a professor at the National Autonomous University, UNAM, in Mexico. He is also a columnist for Proceso magazine as well as La Jornada newspaper.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Tania, let’s begin with you. Can you explain the significance?


AMY GOODMAN: What’s at stake in this Sunday’s election?

TANIA MOLINA: Pardon? What did you say, again?

AMY GOODMAN: What is at stake in this election on Sunday? Talk about the significance of it.

TANIA MOLINA: OK, OK. Well, first of all, it’s a pleasure to be with you at Democracy Now!

And, well, at stake is, as López Obrador was saying in the speech that you ran, it’s between the comeback of the old regime and the continuation of a regime that has only brought us 60,000 deaths in a war against narcotraffic that has not worked at all.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the resurgence of López Obrador in the polls in recent weeks, could you talk more about the movement, the student movement, that has helped to propel him forward and how it started, and what the name signifies of the movement?

TANIA MOLINA: Yeah. Well, it all began in a Mexican University, private university, called Ibero. It was a big surprise for everybody. It was—the students were at an event that was with the PRI candidate, with Peña Nieto, Enrique Peña Nieto, and they confronted him. And it was a big surprise because it was a private university with, we could say, privileged students. So, suddenly, there he was with a roomful of—well, with many students telling him about his authoritarian past and about the corruption that he’s linked with.

So, the thing was that, after the movement, after that day, the event, which was on the 11th of May, the media—some of the media, the main media and the mainstream media, and the big political people were saying that this is something that was created by López Obrador, and we don’t have—it’s manipulated, these are not students. So, the next day, the students were on a video on YouTube saying—holding up their credentials and saying, “This is us. We’re students. This is an authentic movement.” And that was what triggered the movement. It was the media saying these are not authentic students and the PRI trying to minimize the movement, which was not a movement at that moment. So, we could even say that the PRI—

AMY GOODMAN: And so, this was how they came to Yo Soy 132—


AMY GOODMAN: —because they are 132 students that confronted him, “I Am 132”?

TANIA MOLINA: Exactly. And the student, 131. So the 132 is now that the Mexican population has—is in solidarity with them.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also—

TANIA MOLINA: So, I am 132.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by John Ackerman, editor of Mexican Law Review, also in Mexico City. John, Calderón beat López Obrador last time. Some say he stole the election. So talk about the significance of who López Obrador is and his connection to these students and—inspired also by the Occupy movement here in the United States.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Right, Amy. That’s a very, very important question.

Six years ago, in 2006, there was a very close election between Calderón and López Obrador. Calderón officially came ahead half a percentage point—I mean, this was similar to 2000, Gore versus Bush—although many people thought that actually López Obrador had won and that fraud was committed, which would not have been something new in Mexican politics, Mexican elections. And López Obrador, basically, over the last six years has been on a grassroots campaign. He has visited every single little municipality or large municipality in the entire country, including all of the indigenous municipalities, thousands of them in the state of Oaxaca. He has basically conducted a ground campaign for the last six years, with very little money, not much financing or funding.

And in contrast, Peña Nieto, his campaign has been run by the television duopoly. We have corporate media anywhere in the world, but in Mexico this is sort of over and over the top, because we have two television stations, Televisa and TV Azteca, who control 95 percent of all the channels. You know, they have four national channels, each one of them, and many local channels. So they really control what is and what is not news. Most Mexicans get their information through the television. And these television stations have cut a deal with Peña Nieto over the last also four or five years, and they have been promoting his image incessantly, constantly over these years. And so, we have a really radical contrast in terms of not only proposals and political ideology, but of real styles of campaigning and who each of these candidates represent.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John Ackerman, could you talk about this Guardian series, articles that revealed that Peña Nieto had actually been paying the networks to get some favorable—to get favorable coverage?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Yes, this is—this is very important coverage done by The Guardian and Jo Tuckman, who’s a reporter down here. This information, some of it, had already come out in some of the local media, but the international attention and the extensive documents that Tuckman has been providing has been very important to demonstrate what most Mexicans actually kind of already knew, which is that these television stations are behind the candidate, but it’s particularly scandalous that there’s been actually millions of dollars funneled both from the state of—the state of Mexico, which is where Peña Nieto was governor, and from other sources that we don’t know about, to literally purchase coverage to assure that the television stations give him—you know, it would be news unrelated to the state of Mexico very frequently, where he was governor, and all of a sudden they would go to the state of Mexico to interview him or interview his advisers about some sort of national issue. It was a classic case of manipulation and of direct support by a television station. Now, it wasn’t sort of a public endorsement, where they weren’t honest about it, and that’s what is also an important part about the scandal, is that it was really designing their news programs and their coverage so as to support this candidate. They even had a little war room within Televisa, apparently, which was specifically designed to taking care of Peña Nieto’s image. And this is why the youth uprising in Ibero and throughout the country over the last weeks is so important, because it has really sort of burst that bubble and has made people think that perhaps Peña Nieto is not the sort of pretty boy, perfect pretty boy that he’s been made out to be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John, what about the third candidate, the PAN candidate, in the race? The PAN has now ruled Mexico for—under two presidents now, Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. And many—from the outside, we’re told that Mexico is actually economically in better shape now, although there’s more polarization in wealth, but that it’s in better shape economically than ever. So why has the PAN fallen so dramatically?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Well, those economic numbers are debatable. Poverty has gone up over the last six years, and that’s the most important number for me. We have had some basic economic stability, but, for instance, 2009 the Mexican economy went down 6.3 percent. It was the country that most suffered from the international crisis in Latin America. The thing here is that I think the population has decided that they want to kick the PAN out of power. That’s one of the obvious things that’s going to happen this Sunday: the PAN is not going to win. Calderón’s candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, it’s an important candidacy because it’s the first time a woman has been running on a major party ticket, but she is way down in the polls, and people are really upset, as your other guest mentioned, about all of the deaths and the economic stagnation. And so, this is really about what kind of change the Mexican population wants: a change back toward the PRI or a change toward sort of the more progressive, corruption-fighting agenda that López Obrador is putting forth.

AMY GOODMAN: The drug war, the—John Ackerman, the significance of the backdrop of this raging drug war in Mexico?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Yes, very important. Once again, this is the central reason why the PAN, Calderón’s PAN, is most likely not going to be re-elected in power. The interesting point is that actually this has not been a central policy issue that has been debated between the candidates. Basically, all of them are saying they need to—we need to change the strategy, something else has to happen, particularly—and this, I think, a good point that all of them, even the PRI candidate, is talking about—is that Mexico should be focusing principally on peace, reducing violence on Mexican soil, and not so worried about doing the dirty work for Washington in the drug war.

This is something that the United States government has started to get worried about, actually, and has started to put pressure on Peña Nieto. And Peña Nieto, in response to that pressure, last week appointed Oscar Naranjo, who was the police chief for Uribe in Colombia as his top organized crime adviser. So, Peña Nieto is sending a very clear signal that he, at least, does want to continue on the same path as Calderón, following the dictates of the North American drug war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tania Molina, as in most elections, turnout will be a big issue, how many people actually come out to vote. What are the historic turnout levels in Mexico for presidential elections, and are you getting the sense or are polls showing that more or fewer people will be voting this time?

TANIA MOLINA: It seems that more people will be voting. And again, the Yo Soy 132 movement has a lot to do with it, because before the movement there was quite a big campaign among people saying that, “Oh, we shouldn’t vote, because none of the three candidates really—we don’t really agree with any of the three, so let’s just not turn up.” And after the Yo Soy 132, what they say is, “Yes, you should vote. This is very important.” And they are trying to get people to inform themselves about the vote, and they say it’s very important that you vote. So, this week they have a campaign, right before the election, which is called “Six Days to Save Mexico.” And they’re on the public transport telling people to vote. They’re not with any political party, so they just say you should inform yourself and vote and go to the polls.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tania, the significance—

TANIA MOLINA: And they’re also doing rallies.

AMY GOODMAN: Tania, the significance of the solidarity movement—Chile’s student movement, the United States’ Occupy movement, a Chilean student leader coming to Mexico? Have you seen this before? And what did she say?

TANIA MOLINA: Yes, we had the visit of Camila Vallejo, the leader of the students’ movement—well, one of the—the visible leader of the students’ movement. She was here about two weeks ago. And this was a visit that was a coincidence, but it was a great coincidence for the movement. She was with the movement. She had several—a couple of mass reunions with them and with students and general population. And she said, “Thank you for putting the mainstream media on the—as a target, because,” she said, “a student movement, our student movement in Chile, we always target government. We aim for a public education. But we had never targeted the other power, which is the media.” So she was saying that it’s a wonderful thing, and she was—she was very excited to be here. And the movement, of course, was very excited to have her here. And it was a great exchange of experiences. So that was one of them.

The other is with the Occupy and with the indignados, there has been exchanges, as well. And there are people in Spain that have gone with the indignados, Mexican people that are with the Yo Soy 132. And all over the world, as well, there are several groups of Yo Soy 132 of Mexicans that are outside. We have them in London, in France, in several countries in Europe, and in the United States, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Let us, finally, go to John Ackerman to ask you about the role of the United States in these elections, if there is one.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Oh, that’s a big question. The United States has been—at least the U.S. government has been very attentive. Joe Biden had a surprise visit in February—I think it was end of February, beginning of March—and he met with all three candidates. This was kind of unprecedented that a vice president would come down right in the middle of the campaign or just before the campaigns were starting. All three of the principal candidates met with him. It seems to me that the U.S. government is particularly concerned about oil and drugs. You know, those are the—and by immigration, of course. Those are the three big topics. I don’t think any of the candidates offer radical changes here, although obviously López Obrador is going to have a more sort of focus on Mexican sovereignty on all of these top issues.

And Peña Nieto has been really doing a massive PR relationship within the United States to make the U.S. sort of establishment think that he is the safest candidate. But that’s risky because Peña Nieto also has a very dark past. He is—he and his party have been coming out—people have been coming out showing all different sorts of scandals in terms of linkages to corruption, even to narcotraffickers. And the states, the local states which are governed by the PRI in Mexico, are among the most violent and the most corrupt in the country. And so, a return of the PRI, although some people in the U.S. government might see this as a positive thing because he’s sort of more pro-American, in the end, from my point of view, this would actually be bad for U.S.-Mexican relationships because of the increase in violence and the lack of economic development that this could bring about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John Ackerman, on López Obrador’s campaigning, after the 2006 election he led massive protests and sit-ins in town squares, challenging the results, but the reports are that this time around he’s moderated his language, he’s sought to win over more middle-class Mexicans to his party and his candidacy. Do you have a sense that this is—is this accurate, and has it had any impact in terms of boosting his support?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Yeah, well, there are two sides to this. On one hand, yes, López Obrador six years ago led, you know, million-person marches downtown demanding a full recount. I think this was really an inspiration to many of us. You know, Al Gore in 2000 went home, didn’t say anything. And López Obrador actually took to the streets and demanded a full recount, and this really galvanized society and has led to very important electoral reforms, for instance, after that election.

But, yes, it hurt him in terms of, you know, estranging him from some more moderate voters, and he has radically changed his message this year. And he has actually garnered some really important support from business interests. For instance, the city of Monterrey, which is one of the industrial business capitals in Mexico, has been governed by—the local government by the PAN, the state government by the PRI. And a large group of very powerful businessmen has said that both the PAN and the PRI are equally as corrupt, and we are willing to try something new, and López Obrador is our candidate. And he has come back saying, yes, that he’s not a radical leftist. What he’s interested is in transparency and combating corruption and bringing peace to Mexico. And so, there’s been a very interesting new relationship between López Obrador and, you know, middle-class, moderate business interests in Mexico, which has definitely strengthened his campaign in the last few months.

AMY GOODMAN: John Ackerman, we want to thank you for being with us, editor of the Mexican Law Review, professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM, also columnist for Proceso magazine. And we want to thank Tania Molina, who is a journalist at La Jornada, the main progressive national newspaper of Mexico, producing a pamphlet for Zuccotti Park Press by and about the Yo Soy 132 student movement in Mexico.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Eric Holder may well be held in contempt by the House today, the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., in a rare move. We’ll talk about what it’s all about with Katherine Eban of Fortune magazine. What is Operation Fast and Furious scandal? Stay with us.

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