Independent makes history in Mexico governor race

Laurent Thomet
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A tough-talking former rancher who doesn't shy away from controversy or cussing, Rodriguez Calderon already made history by becoming the first independent candidate to be elected governor, in 2015

A tough-talking former rancher who doesn't shy away from controversy or cussing, Jaime Rodriguez Calderon already made history by becoming the first independent candidate to be elected governor, in 2015 (AFP Photo/Julio Cesar Aguilar)

Mexico City (AFP) - A foul-mouthed rancher nicknamed "El Bronco" shook up Mexico's midterm elections, riding a wave of discontent with political parties to become the first independent to win a governorship.

The victory of Jaime Rodriguez Calderon in the industrial northern state of Nuevo Leon was the biggest surprise in Sunday's elections for the lower chamber of Congress, hundreds of mayors and nine governors.

"Nuevo Leon will be the beginning of a second Mexican revolution," Rodriguez, 57, told a crowd of supporters in the prosperous city of Monterrey late Sunday.

"It's great that we will give the parties that had been governing a six-year vacation," he said, referring to the length of the governor's term.

While Rodriguez triumphed in his state, President Enrique Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) retained its simple majority in the 500-member lower chamber of Congress despite the leader's low approval ratings.

But Rodriguez, who used choice words during the campaign against political parties and their corruption scandals, trounced his opponents.

He won nearly 49 percent of the vote, compared to 23.6 percent for the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and 22.5 percent for the conservative National Action Party (PAN), according to a tally with nearly 100 percent of votes counted.

"This is the most important result of the election because it has long-term political repercussions," said Luis Carlos Ugalde, a former president of the electoral institute and founder of the political consultancy Integralia Consultores.

"It's a challenge for the parties, it's a precedent for the 2018 presidential election when there will certainly be an independent candidate and, hopefully, it's a shock to jolt the parties into renovating themselves," Ugalde told AFP.

- 'Puked' old party -

While Rodriguez portrays himself as an alternative to the old guard, critics note that he was a PRI stalwart for three decades before quitting the party in September 2014.

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But Rodriguez says that he not only has shunned his old party, he "puked" it out of his system.

Rodriguez was able to campaign on his own thanks to a 2014 political reform allowing independents to run for office for the first time.

Without a party machinery and funding behind him, Rodriguez harnessed the power of social media to spread his message through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Drawn by his folksy persona (he rides horses, wears cowboy hats and curses during public appearances), voters handed him peso bills during political rallies.

He gained fame while mayor of Garcia, a suburb of Monterrey, from 2009 to 2012, where he faced down the ultra-violent Zetas drug cartel.

Rodriguez says he survived two assassination attempts when he was mayor. His daughter was kidnapped when she was two years old and one of his sons died in mysterious circumstances.

- Presidential hopes? -

His personal life crept into the campaign when his ex-wife told Milenio television that he had hit her while they were married, which he vehemently denied.

Rodriguez also verbally tussled with former president Felipe Calderon, a member of the conservative PAN, who compared El Bronco to late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Calderon said such politicians end up creating "authoritarian governments."

Rodriguez responded with his usual blunt, unfiltered talk, saying Calderon had probably been "drunk."

Dwight Dyer, a Mexico politics analyst at Control Risks consultancy, said it was too soon to know whether Rodriguez could make a run for the presidency himself.

But, Dyer said, the traditional parties "crank up their machinery" for presidential elections and "an independent will struggle to successfully compete against them."