Mexico has mid-term elections this Sunday, and a political shift is testing the country’s long, entrenched party system: A crop of independent candidates determined to shake things up and win by tapping public frustration with politics as usual.
To find out more about this movement, meet Pedro Kumamoto, who became Mexico’s first independent candidate last year. He won a federal seat in Congress, representing a district in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city.
“When we started, they told me, ‘You won’t win. You won’t be able to defeat those political parties who have a lot of money and a lot of people supporting them — and we won.”
He is also 26, the second-youngest member of Congress in the country. Along with breaking the age barrier, he also cuts an informal image, wearing jeans, an untucked shirt and sneakers. Not your typical Mexican politician. Picture him at a café with friends, or jogging around the park, rather than at some upscale power lunch, chauffeured in a SUV with tinted windows — the usual image of politicians here.
“Almost everyone is white, a lawyer, 50 years old, high class,” says Kumamoto of the Mexican political class.
There’s also his last name — Kumamoto. His great-grandfather was from Japan and left there by ship. He thought the plan was to land in California, near San Francisco, but somehow that plan was off course and he ended up in Chiapas, in southern Mexico, and married a Mayan woman. “I’m brown,” says Kumamoto, with a laugh. He knows, though, that it is not typical to see dark-skinned people reach political heights in Mexico.
Breaking molds is also something Kumamoto did on the campaign, defeating candidates from entrenched parties and raising $14,000 from small donations given by people fed up with politics as usual. That frustration let him beat a political machine that, he says, “tries to stop every political effort that is not about money or their friends.”
Now, Kumamoto, and people like him, are slowly gaining ground in Mexico. It was only in 2014 when a law changed to let independents run (2015 was when these candidates entered their first races). One independent candidate, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, known as “El Bronco,” won the governorship of Nuevo León state, home to Monterrey, a major industrial hub and Mexico’s third largest city.
Ahead of Mexico’s mid-term elections on June 5, independents are running in a dozen states.
One question is why did Mexico’s traditional parties — with a tight grip on politics — risk changing the law and losing any power to independent candidates? I asked Viridiana Rios, a political analyst in Mexico City and a fellow with DC’s Woodrow Wilson Center. “They didn’t have an option,” says Rios. “The amount of pressure that happened from civil society and from many groups was just overwhelming. Certainly, they didn’t think independent candidates would get that far. They were surprised, they were absolutely surprised.”
Yet there is only so much change someone like Kumamoto can make, as he lacks traditional party leverage. He knows this, but says he offers something different. “I ask to my constituency to make pressure to all these congressmen and women about what we are doing,” he says. “I ask them to tweet them and phone them. My biggest strength is not what I can do inside the local Congress, it’s what I do outside.”
So far, he has sponsored a law that made his state, Jalisco, a sanctuary for migrants passing through Mexico. Currently, he is pushing to strip legislators of their immunity from prosecution, a long tradition here.
He thinks more people like him are on the way, part of a new political generation.
We met during a meeting of a group Kumamoto belongs to called Wikipolítica, a small but growing national network mostly led by civically engaged young people who demand more from government.
“I see the need in my city, my country, to confront the high level of corruption here,” says Alejandro Soto, a political science student and part of the network. He says to do that he taps his anger and tries to make change through the electoral process, not just through street protests.
Anger is what drove Kumamoto into politics.
“It started since I was a teenager. I was really into the social movements all over Mexico.” He protested police brutality in Mexico City. In Guadalajara, he tried to block new freeways, insisting on public transportation instead. He lost some of those battle and expects more defeats.
“I like to think of myself as a loser in many things,” says Kumamoto. “But I always like to say that sometimes you have to need to learn how to lose in order to know how to win.”
But there’s worry here about independent candidates, too. “We have no certainty as to whether an independent candidate is going to be better than a party candidate or not,” says Rios, who is quick to call Kumamoto “fresh and refreshing.” But, she offers an overall warning about independent candidates who, she says, can be “more dangerous than party candidates.”
She adds: “Because with parties you have some form of transparency, accountability. At least the party is there after the person is left, so there is some form of punishment that the electorate can give them. However, an independent person is just himself, after he’s done, he’s done. Many authoritarian regimes in Latin American have emerged from supposedly independent candidates.”
Kumamoto says he actually does believe in political parties, their structure and purpose. “The big problem here in Mexico is that we don’t have political parties. We have companies, businesses,” he says. “They’re not thinking of how to be more representative to the people. They’re trying to get money and power and that’s it.”
But until he sees a real change in how the party machines here work, Kumamoto says he will stay away from the big parties and keep going his own way.