Three years ago, the star of Mexico’s 2012 electoral stage was the young, elegantly groomed and carefully crafted political figure of Enrique Peña Nieto, who returned the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to presidential power after 12 years on the sidelines — a stretch during which homicides and human rights abuses raged across the country.
In Sunday’s midterm elections, it was a tough-talking, sometimes vulgar rancher aptly nicknamed “El Bronco,” with a fondness for cowboy hats and leather jackets, who captured the limelight, trouncing his competition in a run for governor of the northern border state of Nuevo Leon, an industrial and business hub.
Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez Calderón received 49 percent of the vote to beat his closest rival, a PRI candidate, by more than 25 percentage points, becoming the first independent governor in Mexican history and helping cement the idea that Sunday’s elections reveal a Mexican electorate frustrated with politics as usual.
Up for grabs in Mexico were all 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress), nine state governorships and hundreds of mayoral and local offices.
In an election widely viewed as a referendum on Peña Nieto’s record, the ruling PRI still captured more votes than its competitors, but it was a lackluster 29 percent, according to preliminary results. In 2012 the party received 32 percent of the popular vote, and Peña Nieto garnered 38 percent.
Preliminary results from Sunday’s voting have the National Action Party (PAN) with 20.9 percent of the national vote, the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) with 10.8 percent, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) with 8.4 percent, the Green Ecologist Party with 7.1 percent, Citizens Movement with 6 percent and New Alliance with 3.7 percent.
It appears the PRI may retain control of the chamber by a narrow margin, with the help of its alliances with the Green and New Alliance parties. The PRI won six of the nine gubernatorial races.
But John Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and columnist for La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine, called the results “a disaster for the PRI.”
“In any normal democratic system, this would mean an expression of absolute repudiation,” he said, adding that the party has seen its seats in the 500-person chamber drop from 242 in 2009 to 212 in 2012 to likely fewer than 200 in 2015.
“In some ways, we’re seeing the fragmentation of the whole political party system in Mexico. The main political parties are losing support — for now,” said Chris Wilson, the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a prominent U.S. think tank.
That split is most notable among the parties of the left, with the PRD competing for votes with the newly formed Morena, led by former PRD president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The party, sometimes compared to Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza, wants to reverse Mexico’s neoliberal reforms and criticizes what it sees as the PRD's rightward shift in allying with the PRI and PAN to negotiate the Pact for Mexico.
“My big takeaway is that this election is an expression of the frustration of Mexicans with business as usual,” said Wilson. “The most important thing … if you look at the broader context of the past six months is that the parties and the people in office may not have changed all that much but the citizens themselves are changing. They’re more organized then ever. They’re more frustrated than ever. They’re more active than ever.”
Wilson cited to the passage of an anti-corruption law that Peña Nieto signed in late May and the strong backlash from citizens last week when the government, under pressure from a powerful teachers’ union, suspended the teacher evaluations that were supposed to be a cornerstone of education reform. The government reinstated the evaluations on Monday, the day after the elections.
“There’s always been a lot of protest in Mexico, but the level of organization and sophistication of the new think tanks and NGOs is making it much more difficult for the government to act without accountability,” Wilson said.
As a result, he said, no matter which candidate or party holds congressional seats, they face a new environment of a more demanding citizenry.
“The Mexican society sent a significant message that we are fed up with corruption, violence, inefficiency, political parties and that we expect big changes — profound reforms — now,” said Sergio Aguayo, a Mexican academic and human rights activist. “Those messages came from those who chose the violent path of interrupting [voting] and fighting police, those who proposed to nullify the vote and those who selected people who were not affiliated to political parties.”
Incidents in southern states — including Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero — saw protesters burning ballot boxes and tensions flare between authorities and the CNTE teachers’ union. But according to Excelsior newspaper columnist Leo Zuckermann, those incidents were isolated and affected only 0.33 percent of the electorate.
The voto nulo (null vote) campaign, on the other hand, was more remarkable. Almost 5 percent of Mexican voters cast invalid ballots to signify that they didn’t want to vote for any of the candidates — about double the null votes three years ago.
Also making gains — winning “spectacularly” according to an op-ed by Mexican radio journalist Ciro Gómez Leyva — is the democratic socialist Citizens’ Movement. He writes that the party’s 6 percent tally puts it nearly on par with Morena and the PRD and on solid ground for 2018.
But for Ackerman, Morena is the party to watch. He said it has “enormous potential” to push Mexico to the left, following the example of Spain and Greece, and practically all of Latin America (Cuba and Colombia excluded).
“This new party in 10 months has gone from nothing to 10 percent,” he said. “Morena is this incredible surge of hope and possibility not only for elections in 2018 but for dynamic progressive politics in general in Mexico.”
The rise of Morena, Ackerman said, is far more consequential than the much-hyped election of an individual candidate like Rodríguez.
“We’ve had plenty of El Broncos in Mexico,” Ackerman said, “starting with Vicente Fox,” referring to the wealthy, brash rancher and former Coca-Cola executive who promised to clean up Mexican politics when he took office during the democratic transition of 2000. Ultimately Fox had to work within the corrupt power structure, Ackerman said.
The expectation that Rodríguez marks a new direction for Mexican politics is muted by the fact that he was a PRI member for three decades before declaring himself an independent less than a year ago.
“He is a part of the old system and has just found a way of skirting the local PRI mafia, which in Nuevo Leon is particularly terrible,” Ackerman said. “But this is not a historic event. This is more of the same of this alternation of power.”
“The mistake we made with Vicente Fox was we believed that electing him was enough. Or electing Manuel López Obrador as mayor of Mexico City,” said Aguayo. “We have to make El Bronco from Nuevo Leon not follow the path of Vicente Fox by betraying change.”
“We have to force change,” he added, and not allow these newly elected politicians to “fall into laps of TV networks and multibillionaires and organized crime.”
“They must feel the constant permanent insistent pressure on the part of society,” he said.