In Mexico, voter frustration gives rise to the 'alternative' candidate

Thirteen states and Mexico City hold elections Sunday. Political parties are eyeing the independent candidates warily - and trying to pinpoint how to defeat them now and in 2018.

Jaime Rodriguez, independent candidate for governor of Nuevo Leon state, celebrates his victory after midterm elections in Monterrey, June 7, 2015. His win has inspired other independents to run.

Gastón Luken Garza steps on stage in Tijuana on a recent evening, surrounded by purple spot lights, a fog machine, the glow of recording smartphones, and a cheering crowd of admirers.

One of the city’s leading contenders for mayor, an independent not affiliated with any of Mexico’s established parties, he is part of a growing trend of “alternative” candidates in Mexican politics.

“He’s getting people excited, which is insane for Mexico,” says Matthew Suárez, a local writer here in the state of Baja California, which typically has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in all of Mexico. “When I talk to a lot of my … friends, they’re all about him – the idea that he truly is independent,” and what that will allow him to accomplish.

Following the groundbreaking win of Mexico’s first independent governor, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, aka "El Bronco," in Nuevo Leon last year, the number of independent candidates running in Mexico’s June 5 midterm election more than doubled compared with 2015. Baja California and 12 other states go to the polls this weekend to choose new mayors, state legislators, and governors, and the uptick in independents, some 283 total registered across the country for the 1,425 open seats, is a sign of citizen dissatisfaction with the status quo and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), analysts say.

Although there aren’t as many high-profile standouts like El Bronco this year, their representation – and electability – is watched as a potential harbinger in 2018 presidential elections. Already, leading dailies here are running headline stories and multi-page spreads featuring aspiring independent candidates ready to further shake up Mexican politics. 

Their growth “captures the mood in Mexico in terms of this overall dissatisfaction with the establishment and hope for something new,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

The nascent administration of El Bronco in Nuevo Leon may be the most telling indicator of the challenges and promise of electing an independent. It’s been a struggle to manage a state congress of party politicians as an independent – as well as the expectations of an energized electorate ready for change.

“2018 candidates are watching [El Bronco’s state of] Nuevo Leon very closely: How to address electorates, how to coalesce those dissatisfied with the government,” says Alejandro Poiré Romero, dean of the school of government and public transformation at the Monterrey Institute of Technology. “But I think parties are probably watching output, too, to show that it’s not that simple,” to have an independent in office.

Splitting votes

Aside from Tijuana’s mayoral race, where Mr. Garza is a front-runner, the larger pool of independents this cycle isn’t gaining as much attention as 2015. Last year was the first time independents could run following a 2012 change in electoral law. In some cases, so many independents have entered races that they appear to be splitting votes. But analysts also point to "El Bronco’s" success as part of the reason independents aren’t shining as bright this year.

Established parties have adapted some of the language and campaign tactics that helped the likes of El Bronco rise to power, says Mr. Wood. “A lot of party politicians have jumped on board with the anticorruption message popular with independents, saying ‘we are less corrupt than the other party,’” he says. “Fighting corruption has become part of the national discourse.”

Corruption and “impunity are key problems of our contemporary political system,” says Mr. Poiré. But, “it’s not that simple to implement anti-corruption and anti-impunity measures. Outcomes and results take a little longer than expected, and people can grow restless,” he says.

That’s been the case for Lara Teresa Orozco, pushing a stroller in Monterrey’s historic center on a recent afternoon. “I’d have to say I’ve been a little disappointed,” with El Bronco, she says. She voted for him last summer after years of voting PRI. But Ms. Orozco says her dissatisfaction has less to do with missteps in office and more with her own expectations.

“You just start to believe with all the speeches that choosing someone who isn’t part of [an established party] will be the answer to Mexico’s problems. Not a small step to change, but the step that changes everything,” she says.

More transparency

Mr. Rodriguez (El Bronco), who took office in October 2015, had a rocky start. Within the first five months of his administration, five members of his cabinet – each hand picked for their ties to the community or leadership history, not party affiliation – resigned. Most cited “personal reasons,” though the final exit, by Rogelio Benavides Pintos, was pinned to the government’s purchase of 200,000 blankets at inflated prices. Mr. Benavídes Pintos was involved in the scandal and stepped down so that there could be a transparent investigation, he said, something many observers pointed to as a positive.

“In terms of El Bronco’s government, I think it’s too early to judge in terms of policy change,” says Poiré. So far he’s cut state spending by roughly $92 million and focused on strengthening his cabinet. “But a couple of indicators are uplifting and optimistic, [like] the emphasis on transparency and on the participation of different groups in civil society in shaping the agenda. And more importantly the dedication to mechanisms for follow-up,” like the state’s “Citizen Council,” which gives more platforms for constituent voices and feedback in the governing process.

El Bronco says he and his team spend roughly three hours a day answering thousands of messages from voters on social media, and he freely shares his phone number with anyone who asks.

“The people are now asking their governor to do something. They have access to him and can say, ‘Hey, do something about this,’” he said during a press conference earlier this year. "That's a good thing," even if it's criticism, he said.

Poiré sees two different party strategies in combating independents this election and down the line. “In certain locations where parties felt independent candidates would be particularly attractive, there were efforts this year to make it harder for independents to register,” he says. “But the broader movement has been to think about ways independent candidates might actually … decentralize the vote” and work as a tool for one established party against another, he says.

He expects the independent candidate phenomenon to keep gaining steam here. And even if party machines keep adapting to the new kids on the block, it’s not always about winning, Poiré says. “Independents are raising new issues and pushing new agendas,” he says.

“It’s a very welcome development for Mexico." 

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