Mexico elections: Will 'El Bronco' factor drive weary voters to the polls?

Independents are eligible to run in all states for the first time in June 7 elections. In the border state of Nuevo León, a candidate known as 'El Bronco' is energizing voters fed up with scandal-ridden parties. 

Whitney Eulich/The Christian Science Monitor
Jaime Rodríguez Calderón eats lunch while campaigning in central Monterrey. Mr. Rodriguez is running as the first independent candidate in Monterrey's June 7 gubernatorial elections, hoping to unseat the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which has led this northern border state for 80 of the past 86 years.

Standing next to a sign that counts down to June 7, Mexico's election day, campaign worker Pablo Livas says he has been “wishing for another option” in politics for more than a decade. “We haven’t had the government we deserve,” he says.

But today, a quick glance at Mr. Livas's baseball cap reveals his new sense of hope. It reads simply: “I am El Bronco.”

Mr. Livas is one of dozens of volunteers bustling around a former car dealership off a tree-lined square in Monterrey this week, intent on hawking Mexico’s newest model in political candidates: the independent.

The gubernatorial race here in the northern state of Nuevo León is heating up, with the first non-affiliated candidate, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, aka “El Bronco,” posing a formidable threat to the incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Mr. Rodríguez is polling first or second in a handful of surveys, underscoring widespread frustration with government corruption and leadership. Some hope the presence of independent candidates can help boost voter turnout – and possibly even restore some faith in politics. 

Rodríguez, in an interview in his car en route to his fourth campaign event of the day, says he has a sense of mission about his candidacy. “I want to wake up the country,”  he says. “Nuevo León can set an example for Mexico by beating party politics.”

Push for transparency

Back at campaign headquarters, Livas points at the floor-to-ceiling windows that he calls a symbol of the transparency he hopes independents can bring to the job. “I wouldn’t support El Bronco if he weren’t independent,” says Livas. In the past, he voted for the PRI; his father was a PRI governor here in the 1960s.

This is the first time in Mexico’s history that candidates in every state have been able to run for office – from governor and mayor to federal and state legislatures – without party backing. Some, like El Bronco, have a long history in politics, while others are new faces. Either way, it hasn’t been easy: Independents were required to gather thousands of signatures in order to run; campaign financing is severely limited; and they don’t have the same access to TV and radio spots as party contenders.

But the 2012 constitutional reform that paved the way for independents is timely, as corruption scandals have entangled all three top national parties. And if independents perform well in this election, many say, it could motivate independent candidates to enter the 2018 presidential election.

“The most important criticism is directed at the parties, and the message is very clear,” says Alberto Aziz, a specialist in democracy and civil society at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Higher Learning in Social Anthropology. “They are representatives that don’t represent their citizens. And it’s led to a real credibility crisis.”

Part of the problem or solution?

At a parking lot in a working-class neighborhood an hour outside of Monterrey, another enthusiastic crowd is swaying to the jaunty tempo of a norteño band – its musicians wearing cowboy hats and squeezing an accordion.

“Beneath the hat there’s a sincere Bronco, a candidate that will take care of all the people,” the band sings on a recent afternoon, playing up Rodriguez’s straight-talking rancher image.

The candidate takes to the stage to underscore that point, peppering his speech with his trademark expletives and double entendres. His indelicate jabs at established parties are met by cheers from the crowd.

Later, when asked why his 30-plus years in the PRI don't tag him as a standard politician, his response is immediate: “I'm a citizen," he says. "I’m no politician, I’m politically incorrect.”

Juanita Carolina Arredondo Vega, who is here with her mother, says Rodriguez deserves her vote because of his proposals – things like subsidized public transportation for students and food and medicine deliveries to the elderly. But what she really likes is his directness. “He doesn’t use words that are hard to understand,” she says. “He’s talking to me.”

About 8 in 10 Mexicans don’t trust political parties, according to a 2014 National Electoral Institute (INE) poll coordinated by The College of Mexico. That distrust increased by 16 percentage points between 2011 and 2014.

"In the past, Mexicans have said, 'we get that politicians might not be honest, but we want ones who are effective,'" says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "Now, it seems as though there's a sense that if you're with a party, you're part of the problem instead of the solution.”

But numerous scandals have rocked Mexico in recent months, from the disappearance of 43 teacher’s college students in the state of Guerrero to extrajudicial killings in the state of Mexico to corruption allegations over a home purchase by the first lady.

Earlier this year, activists, academics, artists, and religious leaders began calling for citizens to protest the midterm election by not voting at all. But Jeffery Weldon, director of the political science department at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM) in Mexico City, says he expects absenteeism to be lower in regions where there’s an independent on the ticket.

“It’s another outlet for people to express their anti-partisan feelings by voting independent,” he says.

Pedro Kumamoto, a young candidate for the state legislature in Jalisco, told El Pais newspaper that he represents a “generation of discontent” with politics in Mexico. He won’t accept campaign donations over $500, and he’s publicly declared his assets, something only 303 other candidates had done as of May 27 in a field of thousands who are running for office at all levels. The recent college grad owns a 7-year-old car, has $560 in the bank, and declared nearly $2,000 in art.

An 'experiment?'

Still, independents are facing an uphill battle to finance their campaigns and reach voters, says Mr. Weldon. El Bronco’s campaign has relied heavily on social media, with catchy videos and chatty exchanges with constituents posted on Facebook and Twitter. 

Between rallies Rodríguez swings by a local restaurant for a quick lunch of bean and beef tamales with sides of white cheese and avocado. He records an endorsement for a local mayoral candidate running for the Party of the Democratic Revolution and poses for photos with adoring fans, pausing to rub a hot pink lipstick stain from his shirt collar.

As with any “first,” questions are swirling: Can an independent governor be effective without allied congressmen? Is a single independent federal or local legislator anything more than symbolic? Can someone be truly independent if they previously held office for an established party?

David Martínez Segura, a political consultant active in Via Ciudadana, a citizen group that helped independents in Nuevo León gather signatures in order to run, says citizen participation will be key. “If El Bronco wins, he will need citizens to be incredibly active; to go to congress to ask for things,” Mr. Martínez says, something he’s skeptical will happen.

“For me, this is an experiment,” says Nallely Frias, a young woman standing outside El Bronco’s campaign headquarters, referring to his prior PRI affiliation. "I hope it turns out how we hope, but I can't be sure it will."

Others are just happy to see something different on the menu.  

“I don’t see this as black and white,” says anticorruption activist Miguel Treviño de Hoyos. “I’m just happy to see these elections driving new alternatives.”

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