Alexandre Meneghini, file, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — With signs shouting "No to repression!" and "Down with the PRI!" the angry students who have taken the streets of Mexico with flash protests have become the most visible face of youth in this election.
They have challenged the presidential candidates to debates, urged others their age to pay attention to the campaign, and sought to fight off the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held power for 71 years until its ouster in 2000.
The college students marching in the protests are among the most privileged of the 24 million young people registered to cast ballots on July 1. At the other end of the spectrum sit the majority of Mexico's young who live in poverty, did not graduate from high school, and earn less than $10 a day.
But unlike the elections of 2000, when a majority of young voters agreed that the PRI had to go, this election season has seen a sharp division among youth along class lines. Educated voters in this demographic are opposed to the return of the PRI, while the rest of the voters aged 18 to 29 prefer the candidacy of Enrique Pena Nieto over his two major rivals.
The widespread student movement narrowed the lead held by the former ruling-party's young and telegenic Pena Nieto, but he's still well ahead just three weeks before the election.
Among young voters, Pena Nieto is still the preferred candidate with 33 percent in favor, 8 points ahead of the leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and 10 above the ruling party's choice, Josefina Vazquez Mota. The poll was conducted by the firm Mitofsky from June 8-10 with a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Though they lack consensus over who to choose for president, Mexican young people have much at stake. They suffer from the nation's highest rates of poverty and unemployment, and are the main victims of the six-year-long war against drugs that has left some 50,000 people dead.
"I think they have higher expectations that they deserve better than this," said Rodrigo Aguilera, the Mexico analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The protesters reject Pena Nieto for his party's past. But like young people in general, they are also disillusioned with the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, which launched the drug war that has become frighteningly brutal. Nor have they been swayed by the position of the left, led by Lopez Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor.
"Now you don't even know who to root for," said Mario Luna Perez, a 27-year-old father of two who quit school after sixth grade and lives in an economically depressed town on the outskirts of Mexico City. "It's all the same, no matter who the president is."
Aguilera noted that the student protests have been unusual in that they target what is viewed as unbalanced media coverage, particularly by the nation's most powerful TV broadcaster, Televisa. The news conglomerate, students argue, is manipulating news coverage to favor Pena Nieto.
For 22-year-old Melissa Rolland, a student at a private university who attended a recent protest with a poster that read "apathy is society's worst enemy," the students have to seize upon the opportunity to be heard.
"This is our big moment where we can demand that they really listen to us," Rolland said.
Young Mexicans make up the largest age group of voters, and the largest segment of the unemployed. The country has increased the number of schools and is slowly making it more possible for children to go to high school. But it has failed to offer jobs for the group that will influence the nation in decades to come.
Authorities here repeatedly warn of drug cartels feeding off of an estimated 8.6 million that fall into a category people call "ni-nis," or "neither-nors," young people who neither go to school nor find legitimate jobs.
The educated struggle to find well-paid jobs, and sometimes any job at all.
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