In Mexico, 'El Bronco' rides rare independent candidacy to governorship

Mexico elects its first independent governor even as ruling PRI and partners secure majority in lower house

He campaigned on horseback and called himself “El Bronco.” On Monday, he was calling himself governor-elect.

Jaime Rodriguez became the first independent candidate elected to major public office in modern Mexican history, scoring an apparent landslide Sunday in the race for governor of Nuevo Leon, one of the country’s wealthiest and most important states.

“We have started what many wanted and never dared,” Rodriguez said in one of a string of victory speeches. “The parties have a lot of rethinking to do, both in Nuevo Leon and in the whole country.”

His victory — and the election results as a whole — reflected widespread public anger over corruption scandals and persistent deadly violence that have tainted all major political parties. The message to the parties was clear, analysts said: Voters are fed up.

“It’s no more politics as usual,” said Gustavo Gil, director of political analysis for the Integralia consulting group. “This is a total shift.”

Voters, he said in an interview, want “new parties, new politicians and a new message.”

Voter discontent spilled over into violence in a few places, but most polling was peaceful.

Although the elections were widely seen as a fierce statement of protest, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, fared better than some had predicted. With two small allied parties, the PRI gained an absolute majority in the lower house of Congress, freeing its hand in future lawmaking.

The PRI can always count on a consistent base of voters who will show up at the polls, sometimes in exchange for gifts or money. But across the nation, voters were dumping incumbent parties in governorships and city halls. Among the biggest losers was the traditional leftist party, Democratic Revolution, or PRD. It narrowly avoided losing its majority in the government of Mexico City to a new leftist party participating in its first elections.

With 99% of the vote counted, the PRD took 17 seats; the new party, Morena, claimed 16.

New parties and independents were the novelty in Sunday’s midterm elections for nine governors, hundreds of mayors and all 500 members of the lower house of Congress. Mexico's election regulations were changed last year to allow candidacies not affiliated with parties.

Rodriguez, a colorful rancher who claims to have survived two assassination attempts, was a breath of fresh, if at times ribald, air in the race.

El Bronco — an untamed steed who bucks the system — ran his campaign with a minimal budget, using candid chatter and backslapping bravado to hit the populist chords that resonated with a disaffected public. He made ample use of Twitter and Facebook.

A refrain he repeated often also hit a nerve. “One dead son, one kidnapped 2-year-old daughter and 2,800 bullet holes in my truck,” he would say, recounting his family’s suffering at the hands of criminal gangs.

“Nuevo Leon will be the beginning of a second Mexican revolution,” Rodriguez, 57, proclaimed to supporters as the votes were being tallied in Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon and Mexico’s third-largest and probably most prosperous city.

The cowboy candidate was not universally admired. He was a member of the PRI until quitting last year and had served as a suburban mayor under the party’s banner, raising some skepticism as to how independent he really was. Some Mexicans worried about his caudillo swagger; former President Felipe Calderon, a conservative, likened him — unflatteringly — to the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

But when it came time to vote, support for Rodriguez surpassed all predictions. He won about half the vote in a four-way race, unseating the PRI governor. His nearest competitor, also from the PRI, was more than 25 percentage points behind.

“We are giving the parties that have been governing a six-year vacation,” he said, alluding to the length of the governor’s term. “People like [candidates] who tell them the truth and who sound like them,” he said in explaining his success.

Rodriguez said his first act as governor will be to set up a corruption investigation involving the man who will become his predecessor, Gov. Rodrigo Medina, and Medina’s family. They have been accused by opponents of using Medina’s position to amass large amounts of wealth and prime real estate.

Those charges come on the heels of revelations that Peña Nieto, his wife and finance minister purchased homes and property from government contractors under favorable terms.

Rodriguez has said he cut all his ties with the PRI. But to govern, he probably will have to reach out to it and other traditional parties.

Only 130 of 16,000 candidates running in the elections did so as independents, according to a count by political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo. He opposes allowing independents to run for executive positions such as the presidency or governorship because a victor would need the backing of Congress or other allied politicians to successfully govern — the dilemma Rodriguez now faces.

“It wouldn’t be a divided government but a completely isolated one,” Crespo said in an analysis before the election.

Among other victorious independents was Manuel Clouthier, the son of a onetime presidential candidate. Clouthier, a former member of the National Action Party, will take a seat in Congress. He acknowledged Monday that the independents will come under intense scrutiny.

“We cannot commit the error that the parties did by turning their backs on society,” he said in a radio interview. “And today, society turned its back on the parties.”

Though the election of El Bronco and other independents is undoubtedly shaking Mexican politics to the core, it remains to be seen what effect it will have on the next presidential race, in 2018.

“This has reconfigured many things; there is no longer a certainty for political parties,” said Gil, the political analyst. But with presidential elections three years away, there is plenty of time for traditional parties to regroup, and, for an independent candidate to succeed, he or she would need the same convergence of public discontent and other factors present now, he said.

Preeminent Mexican historian Enrique Krauze was more optimistic. “The triumph of El Bronco,” Krauze said via Twitter, “is a warning to the parties — renew or die — and the presage of a citizen’s candidacy in 2018.”

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter for news out of Mexico.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


6:50 p.m.: This article has been updated with a report on election-day violence.

5:45 p.m.: This article has been updated with the latest results and additional background, analysis and quotes.

10:20 a.m.: This article has been updated with results for the National Action and Democratic Revolution parties.

This article was originally published at 9:45 a.m.