On Sunday, Mexicans voted to elect representatives for more than 2,000 political positions, including the House of Representatives and nine state governors. While it appears that President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ruling party coalition will retain its slim majority in the lower house of Congress, the triumph of independent candidates at the state and local levels shows that disenchanted voters are welcoming outside reformers to challenge the status quo.
The elections took place at a complex political moment. Recent polling has shown that distrust for political institutions is at an all-time high, mainly because of corruption scandals and ongoing violence.
Last November, journalists uncovered a conflict of interest involving Peña Nieto’s wife, who it was revealed had used her position as the First Lady to buy a luxurious residence at a discounted price from a government contractor. Peña Nieto tried in vain to address the revelations. The incident only affirmed widespread perception of politicians as corrupt and indifferent to the public good and likely chipped away at the popularity of the president’s ruling coalition in Congress.
The elections also took place eight months after the abduction in Guerrero state of 43 students from a teachers’ college. The fate of the students, who were presumably kidnapped by police and handed over to a drug cartel, remains unknown. The students’ disappearance triggered protests in every major city, but the political elite merely pointed fingers at each other and avoided taking responsibility.
Observers called the campaign period one of the most violent in recent memory: Eight candidates were killed, as well as a number of campaign staff members. Protests erupted in the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, where teachers threatened to boycott the elections. The federal government sent soldiers to Guerrero before the election to ensure things ran smoothly, but on Sunday there were reports of violent clashes between police and protesters. The elections saw the lowest turnout in 15 years, with early results reporting that only 40 percent of voters showed up at the polls.
Still, the elections likely would have been business as usual, with Mexicans going to the polls to choose one of the major party candidates, if not for recent constitutional changes that allowed independent candidates to run for office for the first time. Despite an uneven playing field — such candidates lack access to well-established political infrastructure and public funding is comparatively slim — Sunday’s elections produced some surprising and telling results.
In Nuevo León, a northern and important state bordering Texas, a blunt rancher named Jaime Rodríguez Calderón ran a campaign that exploited the frustration that citizens feel towards political parties. In the weeks before the elections, the ruling party did everything it could to stop his meteoric ascent in the polls. However, voters in Nuevo León, disgust with endemic corruption gave the independent candidate an overwhelming victory.
He wasn’t the only one. In the western state of Jalisco, Pedro Kumamoto, a 25-year-old independent candidate running for local Congress, made national headlines and garnered attention with a well-engineered grassroots campaign that galvanized hundreds. Kumamoto also won almost half of the vote in his district.
Sunday’s results show that independent candidates are serving as escape valves for Mexicans frustrated with the state of affairs in the country. Despite the hype surrounding the approval of many economic reforms that Peña Nieto touted, the economy has barely grown in the last three years. Violence remains rampant and politicians’ promises appear ever more shallow. Independent candidates, untainted by membership in the major parties, represent a chance to change the status quo.
In 2012, when independent candidacies were approved, few thought that they stood a chance against the entrenched political parties. The idea of an unaffiliated candidate winning a state election was hard to believe. But Sunday’s results have planted a seed in Mexico’s political landscape, showing that they can run attractive campaigns and energize voters. Some even predict an independent candidate in the 2018 presidential election. If political parties want to remain competitive and stay relevant in the interim three years, they must heed what voters clearly relayed at the polls.