Coarse, charismatic and proudly anti-establishment, Mexico’s latest political star is also the first independently elected governor in the country’s history. In June, former rancher Jaime Rodríguez Calderón aka “El Bronco” (The Wild Horse) took advantage of a recent constitutional reform and ran for the governorship of Nuevo León without a party, sweeping aside his rivals with 48 percent of the vote.
With a savvy use of grassroots campaigning and social media, El Bronco sent shockwaves through Mexico’s conventional party system and is now tipped by many as a dark horse presidential hopeful for 2018.
“We have kicked the traditional parties out of power,“ Rodríguez told well-wishers at his inauguration ceremony on October 3, to which he arrived on horseback. “This will force the parties to renew themselves and usher in a more democratic era for Mexico.“
Nuevo León, a northern industrial state, is also Mexico’s wealthiest per capita, yet the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its rivals had rapidly been losing legitimacy among voters. Outgoing governor Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz was recently accused of personally enriching himself in connection with a $3.6 billion public debt.
Bronco Rodríguez has declared the fight against corruption to be his number one priority. Following his inauguration, he told supporters: “Those who have fallen (in this election) acted like kings rather than governors; they viewed citizens as their subjects and public funds as a personal jackpot.”
Bronco’s reputation is one of a plain-talking tough guy. In 2011, while serving as mayor of a local municipality, he famously survived two assassination attempts by criminal group Los Zetas. His popular touch was apparent on the campaign trail when he gave voters his personal cell phone number and encouraged them to call or text him with their complaints.
Yet many ask just how independent El Bronco really is. A former PRI member himself, Rodríguez is very much a product of the system he claims to rebel against. He also boasts a multi-million dollar fortune and close ties to important business interests in the state.
New era or more of the same?
In midterm and local elections in June, independent candidates ran throughout Mexico for the first time following a landmark electoral reform, a move that Jesús Cantú Escalante, a political analyst at the Technological Institute of Monterrey, considers an important advance in the country’s politics.
“There has been a cartelization of politics by the three major parties,” he told Latin Correspondent. “’El Bronco’ succeeded because he cultivated an image as the guy who went up against the so-called ‘mafias of power’.”
The move by Mexican electoral authorities to allow candidates to run independently is another step in the country’s ongoing democratization since the 71-year PRI dynasty gradually begin to lose its monopoly on political power. In 2000, Vicente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party (PAN) became the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election in nearly one hundred years.
Many argue, however, that public institutions have yet to catch up with wider political trends.
“If you look at El Bronco’s vow to combat corruption, well, we’ll see,” says Jesús Cantú. “He talks a good fight, but has yet to propose a framework for real institutional change. He’s still working very much within the old system.”