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Disenchantment may keep Mexico's young voters on sidelines

Many feel alienated and disgusted by the lack of democratic progress in the nation and say they may boycott the presidential election.

May 12, 2012|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Mexican presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto of the Revolutionary Institutional Party greets supporters in Guadalajara in March. In polls, he leads among the under-30 demographic.
Mexican presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto of the Revolutionary… (Bruno Gonzalez / Associated…)

MEXICO CITY — They areMexico's "democracy babies" — a generation that grew up just as the nation broke free of decades of all-encompassing one-party rule.

Only 12 years ago, young people flocked to the polls with high hopes as part of what would be a historic ouster of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Now, as the country prepares to pick a new president in July,Mexico's young sound mostly disillusioned by the choices before them, and by joblessness and skyrocketing drug violence that have hit them especially hard.

On paper at least, these 24 million voters under 30 — nearly a third of the electorate — could be a powerful voice for change. But many have come to view the democratic transition as so much blah-blah-blah in the face of a system that remains deeply marred by corruption and filled with politicians who are as self-interested as ever.

"Why go vote? It's only a waste of time. They're all the same — they all lie, they all steal and no one helps you," said 20-year-old Sergio Guerrero, who on a recent day was selling lamb tacos at a street market here.

Although the country now boasts cleaner, more competitive elections, a more robust news media and an alphabet soup of civic groups, the younger generation sounds disheartened over the shape of Mexican politics and the four presidential candidates.

Recession and more than five years of terrifying violence have been rough all over Mexico. But young people say they have paid an especially high price, leaving them soured on President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, which toppled the PRI in 2000 and has ruled since.

Guerrero, the taco seller, said his family's sheep business in the central state of Morelos has sagged as crime there has risen. He said his father was held up on a highway by bandits last year while ferrying a load of sheep to western Mexico. The thieves made off with the truck and all 11 animals.

"We lost years of work and a lot of money, and that's the fault of so much insecurity that there is with the PAN," Guerrero said.

Unemployment among those under 30 is more than twice the overall rate. And youths say they are especially vulnerable to the violence in Mexico that has killed more than 50,000 people, many in their teens and 20s, since Calderon launched a crackdown on drug traffickers.

"We're the most exposed to the violence. We're the most exposed to the lack of economic resources," said Eduardo Cruz, 18. "We're the most affected."

Analysts say the growing disenchantment among the young, which shows up in polls, focus groups and interviews, might look like common youthful apathy. Wrong, they say.

"It's not just traditional apathy and indifference toward politics," said Enrique Cuna, a sociologist at Mexico City's Autonomous Metropolitan University who recently conducted a lengthy study of young people's political attitudes. "This is not a case of 'It doesn't interest me.' "

Scholars say today's young Mexicans are better informed and more engaged than their predecessors, in part because of the growing use of social media to share news tips or jokes about the latest candidate gaffes.

But, nurtured on high hopes for real democracy, the under-30 set feels markedly disenchanted with politics, researchers say. The age-old Mexican scourges of corruption and impunity appear as entrenched as ever, dashing optimism that more choices on the ballot would bring deeper change to a society that remains highly unequal.

"They've grown up with democracy as a way of life. In school they talk about democracy. At home they talk about democracy. They see democracy, but don't feel represented," Cuna said.

The upshot could be a generation — a big one — left alienated from civic life at a moment when the country needs all the help it can get.

"This is not a question of a generation that wants to disconnect itself," said Manuel Alejandro Guerrero, a communications professor at Ibero-American University in Mexico City. "No, it's a generation that wants to participate but isn't finding the issues in the candidates' discourse or the proper mechanisms to make this connection."

The discontent among young voters amounts to an electoral wild card with two months of campaigning left and the PRI way ahead in most polls. Analysts say under-30 voters, nearly half of whom are eligible to cast their first vote for president, represent a rich trove of possible swing votes. But many young Mexicans say they may not bother to turn out.

Luis Alberto Bermudez is bright, up to date on the latest news and, at 19, old enough to cast his first ballot for president. But the high school senior says that even if he goes to the polls, he might deface his ballot, invalidating it, in protest of the whole bunch.

"They propose a lot," said Bermudez, sporting braces and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the American flag. "But the changes they make are only for a very few, not for everyone."

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