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Candidates Without Parties: Lessons from Mexico

Candidates Without Parties: Lessons from Mexico
Alejandro García Magos | November 2015

Traditional parties need to respond to the challenge posed by independent candidates. They could do so by nominating better candidates and stressing the advantages of an institutionalized party system.

Independent candidates —without the backing of a political party— are a novelty in Mexico. For years, electoral laws effectively banned them by leaving them in legal limbo. No provisions were made for them, not even to count their votes: their supporters were required to write the candidate’s full name on the ballot, which ended up collectively in the “Not registered” bin. Unsurprisingly, politicians rarely bother to run independently, although there have been notable exceptions. The communist leader Valentín Campa, for instance, officially ran in the 1976 presidential election as an independent because his party lacked legal recognition at the time. Estimates put his vote share close to 6%. More recently in 2006, the pharmaceutical tycoon Víctor González Torres ran for president as a self-styled “Independent Not Registered Citizen Candidate.” And while many media outlets considered his campaign a rich man’s folly, it sparked a serious controversy within the electoral authority by demanding to know the exact number of votes received, which some electoral councilors find worthy of consideration.

On February 2014, however, independent candidates finally received legal status with the passing of the latest round of electoral reforms. Largely, this was the result of a long legal battle undertaken by former foreign affairs minister, Jorge G. Castañeda (2000- 2003). Unable to secure a presidential nomination by a legally recognized party in 2006, he attempted to run independently and demanded to have his name on the ballot. Because the electoral authority and the Supreme Court rejected this, he took the Mexican state to court in the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). The commission ruled in 2008 in favour of Mr. Castañeda by stating that under the Mexican Constitution he had every right to run for elected office without being nominated by a party. And so, a few years later, echoing the IACHR’s ruling, Mexican legislators began to debate the requisites and prerogatives for independent candidacies.

The opening of the electoral arena to independents was met with mixed reactions among commentators. Some welcome it as a long overdue rectification of an authoritarian legacy that favoured the current tripartite system formed by the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the rightist National Action Party (PAN). Others worry that the electoral reform may be a gateway for antiestablishment politicians, a threat for the party system, and potentially democracy itself. Parties, after all, organize voters, promote political participation, disseminate information, and are symbols of political orientation, all of which help voters identify with them and hold them accountable.

Almost two years have passed since the 2014 electoral reform. Who has been more prescient so far, those who welcome independents as a wake-up call to the party system, or those who considered them a Trojan horse for democracy? It is too early to know, but last June’s gubernatorial election in the state of Nuevo León suggests that the apprehensions around independents might be well founded.

Nuevo León (N.L.), bordering Texas, is one of Mexico’s most important states by GDP. In recent months, it has received an inordinate amount of media attention as the first state where an independent candidate emerged victorious. Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, alias “El Bronco”, won by a landslide of 48% to 23% for the PRI and 22% for the PAN, the two traditional parties in the state. Mr. Rodríguez’s profile, however, hardly fits the independent label, having been a loyal member of the PRI for over thirty years. During this period, he served as federal deputy in 1992, state representative in 1997, candidate to the municipality of Guadalupe N.L. in 2000, and mayor of the municipality of García N.L. between 2009 and 2012. He decided to run as an “independent” only when he was unable to secure the PRI’s 2015 gubernatorial nomination. The 2014 electoral reform, however, was never intended to open an alternative route to frustrated party members, but rather to empower outsiders and, indirectly, spur parties to be more responsive to voters. In hindsight, Congress is now debating the possibility that party members who wish to run for office as independents should quit their parties three years before an election.

The sudden sense of freedom that Mr. Rodríguez must have experienced after quitting the PRI translated into a fiercely anti -establishment campaign platform. More than anything, this is what was concerning about his electoral positioning. Building on the mistaken but common notion that there is a clear separation between the social and the political, he presented himself as the embodiment of a society oppressed by politicians and politics writ large (“la politiquería”). And, true to his words, he did not include active members of any political party in his cabinet. His main message was that parties have become all-pervasive, self -absorbed, conflict-ridden organizations, and their members out of touch, aloof rascals. It caught on, and continues to do so. Today, governor Rodríguez is one of the front-runners for the next presidential election, scheduled for the summer of 2018. If successful, Mexico’s political party system, widely recognized as one of Latin America’s most institutionalized, would be transformed beyond recognition.

How should traditional parties react to the challenge posed by independent candidates? They need to do something about it if they are to keep their vote shares and, most importantly for them, prevent the erosion of the current party system. Two measures seem sensible: First, parties need to nominate better quality candidates than in the past. What entails a “quality candidate” is of course a matter of debate. Impressive academic credentials? Experience in office? A thick resume? A youthful face? As economists say it depends: if voters today are unimpressed by professional politicians, then civil society actors at arm’s length of party politics might be the answer. In any case, parties should at least revisit their vetting processes to adapt their candidates to external competition. If they succeed in doing so, independent candidates might ironically end up strengthening the party system.

Second, in the longer term, parties and the electoral authority need to renew efforts to educate the public about the benefits of an institutionalized party system. Of particular importance is to counter the naive impression that the solution to government unresponsiveness and corruption is simply to replace professional politicians with ordinary citizens. Such problems can only be tempered by setting up institutions that can effectively check elected officials and hold them accountable. No amount of education, however, will make any difference if citizens do not adjust their expectations regarding politicians. Yes, they can be ruthless careerists. Anyone who reads Machiavelli will understand that they need to be so. But that is true for independents as well as party figures.

Alejandro García Magos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He has previous degrees from the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, and the University of Calgary. His research focuses on the question of how political parties react to high levels of electoral competition. He regularly blogs in Spanish for Global Brief magazine at http:// globalbrief.ca/ alejandrogarciamagos/