MEXICO CITY — Former first lady Margarita Zavala once styled herself as the “Mexican Hillary” as she prepared to run for president. That narrative faltered with the results of the 2016 U.S. election and then she lost a power struggle inside the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), once led by her husband.
Instead of giving up, however, she did what more and more Mexicans are doing — Zavala went independent.
“We’re starting a movement of free Mexicans,” she said outside the National Electoral Institute offices last week, flanked by former partisans.
The 50-year-old former first lady has joined a mind-boggling 85 other potential independent candidates quixotically pursuing the presidency. Many, however, are not expected to gather the 866,593 signatures — representing 1 percent of the electorate — from voters in at least 17 states that are required to make it on the ballot.
The political splintering comes as Mexico confronts the daunting task of reconstruction after two earthquakes, as well as the challenge of soaring crime and violence, which reached record levels in 2017. The September earthquakes, which killed hundreds and damaged thousands of buildings in the capital and beyond, have upended politics and revealed long-simmering discontent with corruption and the political class.
“A month ago, this was a three-party race,” said Federico Estévez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “But after the earthquakes, [everyone] is in the game.”
Since Mexico does not have runoff elections, the next president could be elected with as little as 30 percent of the vote — posing real questions of legitimacy about the next leader in the eyes of an increasingly jaded population.
“Electing a president with less than 30 percent of the vote ... that makes life complicated for the elected president and the country,” said José Merino, director of the data analysis firm Data4 in Mexico City.
The July election marks the first time that candidates can run for president without being affiliated with a political party, though some independents have won office on the state and local level since laws were changed in 2013.
Independent candidacies in Mexico became possible only after a change earlier this decade in response to complaints about the “partidocracia,” or rule by political parties, in which candidates were more beholden to their parties than constituents.
Political parties rank among Mexico’s least-popular and least-trusted institutions. A 2016 poll from Consulta Mitofsky put political parties at the bottom of its survey on trust in institutions — lower than even the police.
The political reforms have certainly brought in some new faces defying the party system, including Jaime Rodríguez, better known as “El Bronco,” who bucked the establishment to become governor of northern Nuevo Leon in 2015.
Then there is Pedro Kumamoto, a 20-something in suburban Guadalajara, who spent less than $20,000 and relied on an army of young volunteers in his improbable campaign to win a seat in the congress of Jalisco. Kumamoto registered recently to run for the Mexican Senate as an independent.
But even with so many independents rushing to register, Mexicans on social media mostly greeted their arrival with little enthusiasm. Many groused that the independents weren’t all that “independent” and that some — like Zavala, “El Bronco” and others — had long backgrounds in political parties while others seemed to be “spoilers” trying to split the vote.
“With this wave of indistinguishable independent candidates, it’s worth asking what they’re thinking when they repeat the word ‘citizen,’” tweeted Antonio Martínez, editor of Horizontal, a digital publication, referring to the independents' propensity to refer to their candidacies as “citizen” efforts.
Among those aspiring to the presidency, a few were well known — such as Pedro Ferriz de Con, a former broadcaster with rightward leanings. Some, though, sounded outlandish, such as Edgar Portillo, a professor who promised that Mexico’s perpetually underperforming soccer squad would win the World Cup should he become president.
Only one voiced a radical departure from the status quo: María de Jesús Patricio, a traditional healer representing the National Indigenous Congress and receiving backing from the leftist Zapatista rebels. Marichuy, as she is commonly known, promised not to take “one peso” of public money and “fight against machismo, against this patriarchal system that says only men can do things,” according to Mexican media.
“Marichuy” trended on Twitter, with many expressing admiration for her apparent independence, if not her politics. “An honest candidacy with a clear agenda and with an intelligent woman,” tweeted journalist Javier Risco. “Perhaps the only true independent.”
Somewhat ironically, this explosion of independents might just help maintain the status quo. Even with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) wallowing in record-low levels of unpopularity and President Enrique Peña Nieto’s approval rating stuck in the teens, the party could squeak out a win if the vote is split.
Early polls show left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the lead, but independents are siphoning off his vote. A Monday poll published in the newspaper El Financiero showed Zavala claiming 16 percent support — with the PAN, running in a coalition with two other parties, slipping. Ferriz de Con claimed 9 percent.
“The right is divided. The left is divided. The independent field is divided. … The opposition is pulverized,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor at the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics. “This is truly the PRI’s best-case scenario.”