MEXICO CITY—Mexicans often refer to their politics and politicians as a joke. But some of the buffoons in the upcoming June 7 midterm elections are professional ones. Like Guillermo Cienfuegos, better known as Lagrimita — Little Tear Drop — a famous circus clown and children’s television star, who has been running for mayor of Guadalajara, the second-largest city. “It’s time for a real clown to govern,” reads one of his political ads, picturing the purple-nosed candidate in a red suit and striped bow tie.
The 2015 elections are the first here to include independent candidates with no party affiliations, part of a 2014 constitutional reform that some welcome as a healthy path to pluralism and democracy. Mexicans will elect 500 congressmen, nine state governors and hundreds of local officials around the country in a race that even President Enrique Peña Nieto admits is a referendum on his administration.
“It’s a positive change,” said José Antonio Crespo, a political analyst from the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City (CIDE). “It’s a citizen’s right, it opens new opportunities for them to enter politics, and it takes away power and strength from the political parties.”
Still, only about one percent of the federal candidates are independent compared to 5 percent at the state and local level.
“Of course, it’s very hard to compete with powerful parties, but it’s not impossible,” Crespo added.
Lagrimita doesn’t have any real chance of becoming mayor — he’s already been taken off the official candidates registry as election authorities declared they found hundreds of duplicate signatures among those required to get his name on the ballot. Nonetheless, he continues to campaign in his circus tent while he appeals the ruling.
He is certainly not the only eccentric on the campaign trail. Soap opera actors, comedians, soccer celebrities and a swearing rancher in cowboy boots have all thrown their hats into the race for a seat among the rich and powerful of Mexico’s controversial political class. They are presenting themselves as an alternative at the polls either as independents or as political newcomers.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco made a name for himself as one of Mexico’s most enduring soccer stars. Now, at 42, he’s pitching himself as a political savior. He’s running as the Social Democratic Party (PSD) mayoral candidate of Cuernavaca, a weekend destination just two hours from the capital once famous for its eternal spring climate, and now better known for kidnappings and murder. In February, the city was declared the most violent in the country. But Blanco, with the aggressive confidence of Mexico’s second highest all-time goal-scorer, believes he can kick out the criminals and restore law and order in the city.
“In Cuernavaca, a citizens’ government is possible,” he declares in his first TV spot, where he is seen jogging up a stairway in the middle of town, followed by a crowd of citizen supporters who drop whatever they’re doing to start running behind him.
Patricio Zambrano, a TV host and former reality show contestant, is running on the Labor Party ticket for mayor of Monterrey, Mexico’s richest tech and business city. The former Big Brother celebrity said citizens are “waking up” to fight against “thieving governments.”
“Monterrey looks like a post-war city now. Roads are destroyed and doors are boarded up, and four to five people die of hunger every day here,” he said. “But we had enough of the old political class. I’m just another guy and I’ll start a citizens’ government.”
In an especially bold move for a politician in a country where security is a major concern, Zambrano, who goes by Pato (Duck), gave his cell phone number to the public and asked people to call him directly.
“Politicians tell us crime has gone down in Mexico, that this is not a country at war, but they ride around in bulletproof SUVs and helicopters, and they leave all of us in this storm of violence.”
Meanwhile, some are using the election to build up their persona. Renato Tronco, a Veracruz congressman elected in 2013 with the Green Party (a surprisingly conservative party in Mexico), will likely run for governor of the state as an independent in 2016. But he’s already hitting the scene as if he were running for office now. On his Facebook page, he launched a contest to find a team of body doubles. Tronco wants to hire four men who look and dress like him — black mustache, checkered shirt, white cowboy hat — to attend political speeches, funerals, weddings and other events on his behalf.
All this in the name of public service, he says, to keep him close to his base. The congressman denies the body doubles are a security measure to protect himself in one of the most violent states controlled by the Zetas cartel.
Tronco, who earns $15,000 a month as congressman — a fortune in Mexico — insists his schedule is simply too busy.
“If I were to go to all these events I wouldn’t be able to attend my congressional sessions,” he explained during a radio talk show. His body doubles don’t need to have political experience. But they won’t be allowed to drink alcohol, sleep with his wife, or attend congress on his behalf, he specified.
“Independent candidates are a good thing, but it depends on who they are,” said Crespo. “These ideas are a joke. They’re making fun of the voters and their intelligence.”
While Mexican politics look more and more like a circus, the country’s violence breaks out even onto the political stage. Candidates have been kidnapped or threatened by crime groups trying to influence the vote. Since the beginning of 2015, five of them have been killed — including Michoacán mayoral candidate Enrique Hernandez Salcedo, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting, and Aidé Nava, a woman running for mayor in a small town in Guerrero state, who was found decapitated in March.
The deadly game doesn’t seem to deter the newcomers. But while they might have captured the spotlight for a brief moment in these elections, polls show that few of the new candidates are likely to win and offer a real alternative to power. The one exception might be Jaime Rodríguez, nicknamed “El Bronco,” an independent running for governor in Nuevo León, an economically important border state where he is expected to beat the ruling party candidate.
Rodríguez’s critics question how anti-establishment the candidate really is, and see him as just another chameleon, given he was a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for 33 years. He decided to run as an independent — they say — only when he saw that his party was not backing his candidacy. But others see him as a real new figure in Mexico’s politics.
“If he wins, it will be the biggest sign that the reform made real change possible, not just a symbolic one,” said Crespo.
Like any other independent candidate, Rodríguez gets only a small fraction of the public financing assigned to political parties. But he’s becoming increasingly popular, especially on social media, as a charismatic, foul-mouthed and perhaps sincere voice for change. The 57-year-old former mayor of a small city ravaged by drug violence survived two assassination attempts, and in 2009 he lost his 22-year-old son, who was kidnapped and killed. He also says his 2-year-old daughter – another of six children – was briefly abducted.
Rodríguez recently compared what he called “the first Mexican Spring” to the 2010 pro-democracy Arab Spring.
“The government is authoritarian, corrupt and even oppressive,” he told Al Jazeera in an email, explaining the “disgust” Mexicans are voicing in this growing anti-government movement.
“The citizens have to be the bosses of this country again, not the ones who follow orders," Rodríguez concluded. "I think these are historic elections that will set a precedent in the way we do politics in the future."
After 71 years of one-party “false democracy” under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the National Action Party (PAN) in 2000 was able to win the presidency for 12 years. During the PAN’s time in power, though, Mexico reached war-like levels of violence. Those years proved so lethal for the country that in the 2012 presidential elections the PRI triumphed again with its promise of stability.
Not even halfway through his six-year term, President Enrique Peña Nieto now has the lowest approval ratings of any president in the last two decades. Although his party, the PRI, will likely lose seats in congress, it is still expected to come out on top in the upcoming election with more than 33 percent of the vote, roughly 8 points ahead of the PAN (which perhaps says more about the opposition’s weakness than any particular strength of the party.)
Javier Sicilia, a vocal poet and peace activist, called for an “electoral boycott.” So did the parents of the 43 students who disappeared in a brutal attack in September in Guerrero state in the hands of drug cartels and municipal police. They are all arguing that a vote for any politician is a sign of complicity to corruption, conflict of interest and impunity.
“I’m not questioning the electoral system,” Sicilia said at a Mexico City event last January. “We’re questioning its players. The game table is full of fraudulent criminals and sitting to play with them, even with a blank vote, would mean legitimizing them.”
In a spreading movement against the political establishment, other groups launched a Twitter hashtag #NOvotoYnoMeCallo (“I won’t vote and won’t shut up”). “Whoever wins, you’ll lose,” the organizers explain in a blog post.
The majority of voters in Mexico are disillusioned or indifferent regarding the midterms.
According to a Consulta Mitofsky poll, only 44 percent of Mexicans know the date of the election. And based on a recent CIDE study, 91 percent don’t trust political parties. Many are split between being excited by the appearance of new faces amid the old corrupt oligarchy, and feeling once again misrepresented at their own expense.
“I still can’t decide if I’ll go vote,” said Estela Alcántara, 46, a Mexico City resident. “These absurd, ignorant candidates show the decadence of our democracy. There is no political culture here. The parties are not interested in forming citizens, they just want political clients, to manipulate them and buy their votes.”
Other critics have stressed the new candidates’ lack of political experience.
“How can you be represented by a body double who might look like you, but doesn’t know anything about politics?” a local radio host recently asked, laughing at Tronco’s Facebook initiative.
Depending on how the independents perform in these midterms, it’s conceivable that an independent candidate could enter Mexico’s next presidential race in 2018.
But according to Denise Dresser, one Mexico’s most influential political analysts, there is still little to be optimistic about this election.
“Corruption has become more widespread since 2000, since the democratic transition,” Dresser recently said during a speech at the Mexico Institute in Washington, D.C. “Mexico became a case that contradicts an implicit theory that more democracy means less corruption.”