Compared with historic, brutal, high-stakes presidential elections here in the past, this has been an important but blah campaign season in Mexico. But recent protests by college students and other young people have added a spark.

Members of the under-25 demographic are calling out the country’s duopolistic media companies and politically cozy broadcasters as propaganda masters and kingmakers — while warning that the front-running candidate, the telegenic Enrique Peña Nieto, is an empty suit.

The only problem with this narrative is that more young people support Peña Nieto than they do his challengers, according to polls, which may make the protests here, led by urban university students, a well-meaning but ultimately meaningless blip.

Yet the stakes, for both Mexico and the United States, are high: a possible comeback by Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran Mexico with an autocratic combination of corruption and coercion for 71 years until it was tossed out in 2000. A month before the vote, Peña Nieto is up in the polls by double digits.

At a dozen large rallies over the past two weeks in several major cities, thousands of young people protested what they see as media manipulation and thwarted democracy. One of the signs read: “Peña Nieto — the television is yours, the streets are ours!”

Peña Nieto, 45, is married to a soap-opera star from the Televisa network, and his critics say he has received overwhelmingly favorable coverage from the country’s No. 1 broadcaster, which reaches 70 percent of Mexican households.

“We are not against Enrique Peña Nieto, but we are against his attempt to impose, by an unethical business community and by the political class, a conspiracy to elect him,” said Rodrigo Serrano, a spokesman for the youth group. “We do not want a return of the old regime.”

Divided youth demographic

Some enthusiastic participants have compared the youth street actions and earnest YouTube videos, driven by Facebook and Twitter, to the Arab Spring. Except that Mexico is a fully functioning democracy, with an elected president who is leaving peacefully at the end of his single, constitutionally mandated six-year term.

Others have compared the protests to the Occupy movement in the United States. They say the students have a valid point, if not a detailed agenda, that this is a corporate, scripted presidential campaign that does not include vigorous debate or any real access to the candidates, outside their made-for-TV rallies and speeches. And, they point out, a single, stilted debate was not even aired on major television channels — nor have the candidates faced real news conferences or town hall audiences.

Trailing in the polls are the leftist stalwart Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, and the ruling conservative National Action Party candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota.

According to the latest surveys by the independent Mitofsky group, Peña Nieto is winning 34 percent of the vote among 18- to 25-year-olds; his two opponents are trailing with 20 percent.

“Peña Nieto is viewed not as the return of an anachronistic party but as a fresh new voice by a third of voters — the young — many of whom are too young to remember life in the PRI one-party state,” security analyst Jorge Chabat said.

The youth vote helped elect the conservative former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox in 2000 and almost got Lopez Obrador into office in 2006.

“The student movement, while representative of a certain sector — middle- to upper-class youth — is not representative of the nation as a whole,” said Rodrigo Aguilera, Mexico analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Peña Nieto’s support in this demographic has always been weak even before the movement began.”

‘Fresas’ start a movement

Yet pollsters are seeing some movement against Peña Nieto from the protests. “Even though Peña Nieto is the youngest, he has lost points in this segment of the population” since the protests began, said Roy Campos, a Mitofsky pollster.

The student movement started May 11 when Peña Nieto was jeered during an appearance at the Ibero-American University for his role as governor of the state of Mexico in calling in police to put down a 2006 protest by flower vendors, which resulted in mass arrests and two deaths. After some in the audience shouted “assassin,” Peña Nieto left the stage.

Ibero-American University is a private college attended mostly by the well-to-do children of
Mexico’s elites, called “fresas,” or strawberries.

Immediately after the incident, some PRI supporters said the students had been infiltrated by operatives for Peña Nieto’s leftist opponent.

“They were too organized to be students,” one PRI official said on the radio.

Indignant, the students responded with a video, which went viral, in which some of them held their student ID cards up to the camera and denounced PRI statements.

And, so, the movement was born.

Demand for debate

At a protest this week, the students presented a letter to the interior minister, Alejandro Poire, demanding that he force all radio and television broadcasters to air the second, and probably last, presidential debate, scheduled for June 10.

The broadcast of the first debate, on May 6, stirred controversy when TV Azteca declined to air it on its major channels — because there was a semifinal soccer match at the same hour. The station’s billionaire owner, Ricardo Salinas, taunted critics via his Twitter account that the sports event would get higher ratings.

It did not.

The youth protests, whatever happens next, have generated a debate among Mexico’s chattering classes.

Jorge Castaneda, who served as foreign minister under Fox, said the young protesters seem too vague and naive in their aims to achieve much — a criticism also made by mainstream pundits in the United States about the Occupy movement.

John Ackerman, a university professor in Mexico, defended
the protesters, saying that they might not remember a PRI government but that they know
media manipulation when they see it.

The leaders of the youth marches say they have achieved concrete results — Televisa has announced that it will air the next debate on its most-watched

Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.