With all eyes focused on Syria and Egypt, mounting tensions in Mexico City are garnering little international attention, even in the aftermath of striking teachers looting Congress and grinding traffic in the city to a halt in numerous places. With President Nieto moving to push through several important pieces of agenda in the coming weeks, the possibility of Arab Spring style protests in Mexico is becoming a real possibility.

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Protesters in Mexico charge Nieto’s plan

Protesters charge that Mexican President Nieto’s plan to overhaul the Mexican education system will essentially amount to privatization of public schools. Teachers fear this will lead to poorer education conditions and will ignore the rights and needs of marginalized minorities. Protesters charge that Mexico’s education system, one of the worst in the OECD, is suffering due to chronic underfunding and that privatization will solve nothing.

So far, the protests have been surprisingly forceful. Mexico’s national congress was forced to work out of a race track on the outskirts of Mexico city after protesters blocked access to the national congress building. Later, some protesters broke in and looted portions of the building. Traffic on key roads was also brought to a halt as protesters erected blockades. A tent city has also been set up in the mains square and is protected by numerous road blocks and de facto check points

Protests are being led by the CTNE union, which in the past has staged violent and dramatic protests. The party once even took over and occupied the town of Oaxaca for five months in protest of proposed changes to the education system. Critics accuse the union of trying to protect life-long jobs for union members and refusing to accept even moderate reforms.

Mayor Mancera sympathetic to protestors’ movement

So far protesters have seen little interference from the police. Mexico City itself is controlled by leftist mayor Mancera, whom many view as being sympathetic to the protest movement. He has so far refused to use police to break up or seriously hinder police. The biggest police presence has been for the protection of American and other foreign embassies. Whether or not military or federal forces could become involved remains to be seen.

President Nieto is looking to install several other major overhauls in the coming weeks, all of which could be met with similarly strong protests. For one, Nieto wants to see the opening up of Mexico’s nationalized oil industry. This will likely be met with strong resistance by bureaucrats and others who benefit from the status quo. Anti-globalization and privatization groups will also likely take a strong stand against privatizing Mexico’s oil industry.

With tensions mounting, conservative President Nieto’s agenda looks to be in danger. Nieto came into power after securing less than 40 percent of the vote and lacks a congressional majority. Nieto is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held power from 1929 until 2000. Interestingly, PRI was founded as a socialist party, but has gradually shifted towards a more centrist platform. Under Nieto, the party has been moving even further to the right.

Nieto’s reforms to increase risk of more protests

If Nieto decides to press further for reforms, Mexico City could be caught amid increasing protests. While protests so far have been largely peaceful, the risk of more violent push back from both sides will increase as time goes on. This is especially worrisome as Mexico’s police forces are largely seen as under-trained for dealing with such situations, and in the past have resorted to brutal violence against protesters.

If Nieto fails to push for reforms, however, he could be seen as weak and incompetent. Given his already tenuous position and the fact that he did not win a clear victory in the last Presidential election, Nieto appears to be facing a lose-lose situation and may lack the political power necessary to push his agenda forward.