Independent candidates threaten to break grip of Mexico’s parties in next election

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A disgruntled former first lady who recently left her party after leadership struggles. An indigenous woman supported by a decades-old guerrilla movement. A tough-talking governor with a love for cowboy romanticism. Next year’s Mexican election will host a broader and more diverse group of presidential hopefuls than ever before. For the first time in the country’s recent history, independent candidates without a party affiliation are allowed to participate.

It’s an innovation some observers say is badly needed, as Mexico’s traditional political parties have been deeply discredited by corruption scandals and cronyism. Others, however, believe independent candidacies will do little to change the country’s dysfunctional democracy.

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“I believe it’s a significant development, something that may force the political establishment into a new direction,” Fernando Dworak, a political scientist and commentator for Politico Mexico, told America. “But it’s also dangerous to expect too much of them.”

Much will be at stake when Mexicans go to the polls on July 1, 2018. They will vote for a new president, Chamber of Deputies and Senate, as well as for hundreds of other elected officials at the state and municipal levels. The election is expected to be one of the most hotly contested since the country’s transition to democracy in 2000.

Next year’s Mexican election will host a broader and more diverse group of presidential hopefuls than ever before.

Early polling suggests that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I.) of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is constitutionally barred from re-election, faces an uphill battle to retain power. The nation has been riven by a seemingly endless series of corruption scandals and has endured sluggish economic growth. And with this year threatening to become the most violent year in recent memory as the more-than-a-decade-long drug war grinds on, Mexicans are hungry for change.

The P.R.I. faces a strong challenge from leftist populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor and runner-up in the previous two elections in 2012 and 2006. An Oct. 17 poll published by the Mexico City newspaper Reforma places him firmly on top, with almost 30 percent of the vote, 11 points ahead of a coalition of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the social-democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (P.R.D.). The P.R.I., regardless of whom it fields, would earn only 17 percent of votes, according to this survey.

But many Mexicans are tired of all traditional political parties and the “eternal candidate” Mr. López Obrador. His Morena Party is a new player, but he is a former member of both the P.R.I. and the P.R.D. Voters are looking for alternatives to national politics they feel is badly tainted by big-spending parties that seem to deliver only more corruption.

“The Mexican electoral system is like a cocaine addict—it needs more money all the time,” says Emilio Álvarez Icaza, founder of the civil rights group Ahora and former executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “It’s an extraordinarily costly system. The 2012 presidential campaign alone cost some $2.5 billion in public financing. It’s a beastly amount.

“And that’s without counting the enormous amount of dark money.” Those obscure funds are delivered by organized crime or “poured into campaigns by governments illegally siphoning public money via social programs and businesses.”

Next year’s election provides alternatives for the first time—at least on paper—with independent candidates allowed to contend. The possibility of citizens running on platforms not affiliated with any party first gained traction in the run-up to the elections of 2006, when former foreign secretary Jorge Castañeda lost a legal challenge to be allowed to run as an independent. A series of reforms in 2009 and 2014 legalized the possibility of citizen candidacies under relatively strict conditions.

Independent candidacies were first put to the test in the 2015 midterm elections and immediately met with a major success. In the wealthy northern state of Nuevo León, former P.R.I. member Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, nicknamed “El Bronco,” became the country’s first non-party-affiliated governor. Cultivating a tough-talking, cowboy-esque persona, Mr. Rodríguez Calderón capitalized on widespread anger about corruption and graft by previous administrations led by the P.R.I. and PAN in the state, promising to clean up the budget and throw his predecessor, Rodrigo Medina, in jail.

His campaign inspired voter enthusiasm rarely seen in Mexico. And although public opinion has soured on his administration over his perceived lack of success and crass manners, his campaign proved that the stranglehold of traditional parties can be broken, and he is among the potential independent candidates for president next year.

“Next year will give us three things that we’ve never seen before,” says Mr. Álvarez Icaza, who had briefly considered an independent run himself. His civil rights group Ahora registered Ana Lucia Rojas, a former student activist, as an independent candidate for Mexico City mayor. “Independents will be able to run in the whole country for the first time, more than 3,000 officials will be elected, and some 10 million new, young voters will cast their ballot for the first time.”

Those seeking to file an independent candidacy have until Feb. 12 to gather 866,000 signatures among voters in 17 of Mexico’s 32 states, a threshold that will give them access to public funding. A whopping 86 citizens are hoping to achieve that goal, among them both known and unknown contenders, with some drawing significant support that could potentially disrupt next year’s vote.

Among the most notable independent candidates is Margarita Zavala, the wife of former president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). Early polling places her fourth in next year’s race, just behind the candidate of the P.R.I. She left the PAN, the party of her husband and of which she had been a member for more than three decades, after a bitter struggle with the party’s leader, Ricardo Anaya. As of Oct. 30, she had already gathered more than 35,000 signatures, significantly more than any other independent. She is closely followed by Governor Calderón, with little over 20,000 signatures, who hopes to repeat his 2015 success on a national level.

The most eye-catching independent candidacy so far, however, has been that of Maria de Jesús Patricio Martínez, the first indigenous woman ever to run for the Mexican presidency. An ethnic Nahua from the central state of Jalisco and a traditional medical healer by trade, Marychuy, as she is more widely known, is the spokesperson for the Indigenous Governance Council, a body supported by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (E.Z.L.N.)—a guerrilla group that briefly fought a civil war with the federal government over indigenous rights in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994.

Marichuy leads a grassroots campaign focused on indigenous rights and economic equality. In recent weeks, her candidacy had been greeted with enthusiasm among leftist urban youth, anti-globalists and indigenous activists from across the country. She has managed to gather more than 12,000 signatures so far.

“Her discourse is attractive because she is the only candidate who really questions the economic, social and political system,” Mónica Uribe, a commentator for the El Economista newspaper, wrote last week. “She’s the only one, besides those who come from the political elite, who really has a shot at getting the almost 900,000 signatures needed to be registered for the 2018 ballot.”

She may represent the only true independent candidate in 2018 race. She has no previous ties to any of the traditional political parties—one of the major criticisms of other independents. Few believe the introduction of those citizen candidates will provide Mexicans with a real alternative next year. Like Margarita Zavala and Jaime Rodríguez, the majority of independent candidates are made suspect by their past party affiliations.

Instead of changing the system outright, independents may simply disrupt traditional elections. After breaking with the PAN, Ms. Zavala may take a significant portion of its potential voters with her, leading to accusations from her former fellow party members that she may “fracture” the right in a way that will only benefit the P.R.I.’s chance to remain in power. Conversely, frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador has repeatedly expressed similar fears that left-leaning independents may deprive him of his third and possibly last chance to win.

“Our democracy must allow them to compete, allow them space,” Politico Mexico’s Mr. Dworak told America. “I think it’s a great development, but I don’t think they’ll make much of a dent when it comes to the presidency. It’s more likely that they’ll be successful on a local and state level.”

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