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Disenchantment may keep Mexico’s young voters on sidelines

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

In fact, youthful voters could end up helping the PRI retake the presidency with its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, a telegenic former governor of the central state of Mexico who is married to a soap opera star.

Peña Nieto, 45, leads in polls among voters younger than 30, mirroring his overall advantage over two main rivals, Josefina Vazquez Mota of the conservative PAN and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the left-tilting Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD.

The fourth candidate, Gabriel Quadri of a party called New Alliance, barely registers support.

Young people who prefer Peña Nieto say they are drawn to his relative youth and good looks and dismayed by the performance of the PAN.

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“It would be good to have a change, and I like Peña Nieto,” said 18-year-old Roberto Ruiz, a student. “He’s young, and I think that helps.”

Many youthful voters see Peña Nieto’s party as an emblem of change, a stunning turnaround from 2000, when the PRI lost after a 70-year reign marked by graft and, at times, ironfisted repression.

This year, the PRI is promoting a cleaned-up, modernized image. But many new voters are too young to remember the old one anyway.

“They don’t have this historic memory of what the PRI was,” said Guerrero, the communications professor. He said many young voters, like their elders, have concluded that the PRI’s experience might be what the country needs to get the economy going and bring the drug violence under control.

There could be a bright spot in all the grumbling. Although dissatisfied, young Mexicans haven’t abandoned hope for democracy in their country. The problem, they say, is that there isn’t enough.

Many youths, for example, say one way to fix an ossified system is to allow independent candidates, breaking the parties’ stranglehold on the ballots. That change was part of limited political reforms recently approved by Congress, though too late for the current election cycle.

Bermudez, who said he might yet settle on a candidate by July, described political life in Mexico as “neither a no nor a yes” — a limbo state where residents are urged to exercise their vote but know that real power rests elsewhere.

Party bosses determine which candidates appear on the ballot, with little role for ordinary voters before election day. A law barring reelection inoculates politicians against voter judgment once their terms end, and a weak justice system means there’s little chance the corrupt will be punished. And so far, voter-initiated ballot measures are unknown in Mexico, leaving lawmaking solely in the hands of legislators — among the country’s least respected players.

“We live in a country of lies,” Bermudez said, “and a very mediocre democracy.”

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Cecilia Sánchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.


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