Wave of Independent Politicians Seek to ‘Open Cracks’ in Mexico’s Status Quo

Among Mexican voters, there is “a great dissatisfaction with the traditional partisan system and the states’ lack of ability to respond to citizens’ demands,” said Alejandro Poiré, secretary of the interior in the administration of President Felipe Calderón, whose term ended in 2012. “A growing number of citizens,” he added, are “trying to partake in this system through alternative channels.”

For instance, 16 members of Wikipolítica, a leftist youth movement founded in 2013, have qualified to run as independent candidates for federal and state races. Many are under 30, and they include Mr. Kumamoto.


Independent political candidates celebrated with supporters after collecting enough signatures to run for Congress in Jalisco State.Credit Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

“We share a common principle, and that is if you don’t get yourself involved in politics, someone else will come and do it for you,” Mr. Kumamoto said, describing the goals of Wikipolítica, whose name, a play on Wikipedia, is meant to suggest grass-roots politics.

Wave of Independent Politicians Seek to ‘Open Cracks’ in Mexico’s Status Quo
Wave of Independent Politicians Seek to ‘Open Cracks’ in Mexico’s Status Quo

The political establishment, as embodied by the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which held power uninterrupted from 1929 to 2000, is perceived by many Mexicans as inclined to corruption and graft.

“To be born and grow up in a country ruled by the PRI meant you thought that there was one way of doing politics,” said Roberto Castillo, 27, a founding member of Wikipolítica, who is now running for a seat in Mexico City’s state-level Congress. “This meant patronage politics over merit, knowledge or leadership, and we were made to believe that was morally acceptable,” he said. “But that is changing.”

Carlos Brito is another youth activist looking to enter and change the political system.

An earthquake in September left thousands of people homeless in his small hometown, Jojutla, in the south-central state of Morelos, and local leaders were accused of hoarding aid for the victims. Mr. Brito, 30, said he could not bear the outrage, so he decided to run for mayor, leaving a successful digital start-up in Mexico City and moving back to Jojutla.

Both Mr. Kumamoto and Mr. Brito said one of the biggest challenges facing independent candidates is overcoming voter skepticism that the political status quo can be challenged.

“We have been convinced by this lunatic idea that nothing will ever change,” Mr. Kumamoto said. “That is what I call the anticipated defeat, and we must realize that is simply not true.”

Mr. Brito is a former member of a student movement that emerged in 2012 to protest media manipulation during the campaign of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in December of that year.

Reflecting on the Peña Nieto administration, which has been tainted by corruption scandals, spiraling violence and human rights violations, Mr. Brito said the most valuable lesson for young activists is “to train yourself against frustration.”


“We have been convinced by this lunatic idea that nothing will ever change,” Mr. Kumamoto said. “That is what I call the anticipated defeat, and we must realize that is simply not true.”Credit Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

Mr. Brito expressed confidence that the surge of independent candidates would begin to have an effect. “We are witnessing the demise of the political establishment,” he said. “And we should be happy about that.”

But in a political system that favors established parties — Mexican law, for example, guarantees parties funding and media access during campaigns — the electoral performance of most of the independents in the coming election is expected to be marginal, experts say.

“There is a political oligopoly designed with high entry barriers and enforced by restrictive laws that prevent us from having more Kumamotos,” Mr. Poiré said.

While many of the independents may struggle to win their elections, Mr. Kumamoto has established himself as a rising force, at least in Jalisco.

The great-grandson of Japanese immigrants, Mr. Kumamoto said his activism began when he joined a sit-in at age 19 to halt the removal of hundreds of trees for a highway overpass. He later became president of the student council at his college.

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Now Kuma, as he is known among his peers, enjoys a kind of celebrity in Guadalajara. People of all ages stop him in the streets for selfies, and passing cars honk and drivers raise their fists in support.

At his campaign headquarters in Guadalajara, a group of young people were organizing crowdfunding efforts, rallies and media campaigns.

Sitting among them was Susana Ochoa, 27, an activist who served as the communications manager in Kumamoto’s campaign two years ago. With a passion for politics and feminism, Ms. Ochoa said she felt it was time to step on the stage herself and run for a seat in Jalisco’s Congress.


Wikipolítica candidates at a rally in Guadalajara.Credit Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

“I decided to do it to redefine what it means to be a woman and a woman in politics in Mexico, and so that girls of future generations find it easier to raise their hand, not only in politics, but in every aspect of their lives,” Ms. Ochoa said.

She said she viewed the rise in independent candidacies not as a “panacea” for all that ails Mexico, but rather as a “tool to open cracks with.”

As a lawmaker, Mr. Kumamoto sees one crack to open: He says he wants to show that politics can mean something other than corruption and theft, and he’s donated 70 percent of his salary to a fund focused on political participation.

Landing in the state Congress at age 25, he knew it was important to show he could be effective, despite his inexperience.

He garnered multiparty support to pass legislation in which political parties gave up much of their public funding. Called “No Money Without Votes,” the state law cuts funds assigned to the parties by more than half, and calculates future funding based on the votes each party wins in the previous election.

He won passage of another initiative to end protection from prosecution for Jalisco’s elected officials. Early criticism of his lack of experience and political naïveté was quickly silenced.

But opponents argue his popularity is overblown and fueled by a media frenzy over his age, independent status and campaign, which broke with the norm of patronage politics.

“His legislative triumphs speak more about the favorable circumstances of the political climate here than of his true leadership,” said Mónica Almeida López, a state representative from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, who opposed the “No Money Without Votes” initiative, claiming it would damage smaller parties.


Mr. Kumamoto says he wants to show that politics can mean something other than corruption and theft.Credit Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

Among his political inspirations, Mr. Kumamoto said, are the leftist former president of Uruguay, José Mujica, and movements like Occupy Wall Street. Now, he has begun to inspire others.

At a small rally in the center of Guadalajara, a banner read: “We will replace them.” Nine young candidates running for the Jalisco Congress had collected the signatures they needed to run and were celebrating.

Among them was Alejandra Vargas, 29, a political novice with a degree in industrial engineering, who said she was flabbergasted when Mr. Kumamoto suggested she run.

“I didn’t even know what a congressional representative did,” Mrs. Vargas said. “But when I thought about it, I told myself I had no excuses for turning it down as I had always preached about civic participation being the backbone of democracy.”

Mr. Kumamoto stood in the back of the crowd that was cheering the new independent candidates. “This is what is all about, to pass along the baton,” he said.

A gray-haired man walking by stopped at the sight of the rally.

“He is not a politician, he is one of us,” said Jorge González, 63, referring to Mr. Kumamoto. “He is a normal person and that is what makes him so great.

Mr. González noted that a typical Mexican politician does not ride a bike or wear tennis shoes, as Mr. Kumamoto is known to do.

“I just trust him, he said. “He has my vote.”

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