MEXICO CITY – The bronco, the jaguar, and the former first lady: These three outsiders appear destined for Mexico's July 1 ballot as the first independent candidates to seek the presidency in generations, the result of a reform seen as a victory for democracy in the country.
The mavericks have cleared the demanding hurdle of collecting nearly 1 million signatures to qualify and — pending official word from election authorities — are sure to sure to inject color into the race by challenging candidates from the well-heeled, state-funded parties that are widely perceived as corrupt political machines.
While early polls suggest they have slim chances of winning, the independents could siphon enough support to wreck one or more of the three mainstream candidacies, or produce an eventual winner with just 30 percent or less of the vote and inevitable questions about the mandate to govern.
"For the first time in the history of Mexico, we have independent candidates battling for the presidency. ... I think they are going to change the electoral outlook when the campaign proper begins April 1," analyst and political consultant Ruben Aguilar said.
He cautioned, however, that "it remains very much in the dark at this moment exactly what will happen, who will benefit, whom they will hurt."
The three independents are Margarita Zavala, a lawyer, two-time elected lawmaker and the wife of former President Felipe Calderon (2006-2012); Jaime Rodriguez, a plain-spoken horseman known popularly as "El Bronco" who has already blazed a trail as the first independent to win a governorship in modern Mexico; and Armando Rios Piter, a largely unknown policy wonk who has embraced the nickname "El Jaguar."
Conventional wisdom holds that Zavala threatens to sap support from Ricardo Anaya of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.
Zavala was a prominent contender for the PAN nomination when she abandoned the party and launched an independent candidacy, alleging that Anaya, who was party president, had maneuvered himself into the nomination by sidelining rivals. He's now at the head of a coalition with the left-leaning Democratic Revolution, or PRD, a party that's been hurt by divisions but is flush with government financing.
Beyond that, the picture is a bit muddied.
Some predict the independents could divide the opposition vote, helping the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose approval ratings have taken such a hit under President Enrique Pena Nieto that it chose a non-party member, Jose Antonio Meade, as its candidate for the first time in its nearly 90-year history.
The PRI still has a formidable national political machine inherited from decades in power, as well as a core base of supporters that make up about a third of the electorate. That might be enough to win in Mexico's first-past-the-post system in such a crowded field.
Roy Campos, president of polling firm Consulta Mitofsky, predicted that both "El Bronco" and "El Jaguar" will benefit Meade by attracting voters who "are angry, but do not dare make a total leap to (Andres Manuel) Lopez Obrador," a polarizing figure in Mexican politics who inspires devotion from his followers and deep suspicion among his opponents.
But some see in the independents an advantage for Lopez Obrador, who was runner-up in the last two elections as the PRD candidate before leaving the party to start his own, known as Morena.
Still others see a split effect: Rodriguez might attract would-be Meade voters while Rios Piter, a former PRD member, picks off some leftists who don't like Lopez Obrador and can't stomach the fact that their party is allied with the conservative Anaya.
A poll this week by Consulta Mitofsky had Lopez Obrador leading with 27 percent, followed by 22 percent for Anaya and 18 percent for Meade. Collectively, the independents were pulling 8 percent. The poll surveyed 1,000 registered voters nationwide and had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Nearly 25 percent of respondents were undecided, however, and a lot could change in the next 4½ months.
The independents haven't yet had much chance to truly engage with voters. Publicity for their signature drives has been dwarfed by the pre-nomination ad campaigns and coverage for the mainstream party candidates.
The independents say they're more than just spoilers.
Rios Piter said he is raising issues the other candidates avoid, such as gay marriage and marijuana legalization, and represents people — migrants, the young — that others ignore.
Still, he acknowledged that some of the nearly 1 million people who signed petitions to put him on the ballot may not vote for him.
"People see me as playing a functional role in the debate ... and to say what nobody else is saying," Rios Piter said. "They see me as a chance to put the three party candidates in the hot seat, to not let them wiggle out of the debate."
Zavala, who promises to improve the economy, tackle corruption and combat insecurity, said her campaign has come this far without a party machine behind it, much less public money or government-allocated TV and radio spots.
"We have achieved many things without the parties ... Let us not underestimate the power of the people," Zavala said Sunday after a rally in a Mexico City park ahead of a final push to the Feb. 19 deadline for gathering signatures.
Rodriguez, a charismatic former mayor and lawmaker who in 2015 beat a PRI candidate by 25 points to become governor of the northern state of Nuevo Leon, has campaigned on horseback and in cantinas and tried to woo voters with stories of how his family has personally suffered from the kidnappings and violence plaguing much of Mexico.
He argued that the main parties are "disintegrating" — and reserved particular disdain for the one he once belonged to.
"The PRI is neither my mother nor my father. I have principles, values and a story to tell," Rodriguez said.
"I lasted 10 years with my first wife. I loved her for 10 years. And today I love the woman I'm with now," he added. "I was always a rebellious man."
A fourth independent, Maria de Jesus Patricio, attracted early attention as a Nahua healer from the central state of Jalisco. She received the backing of the National Indigenous Congress as their candidate and representative, but is well short of the necessary signatures and appears to have no chance to get them by Monday's deadline.
Mexico only recently dropped a ban on independent candidates dating to the mid-1940s. Two minor independent candidates ran in the 1940 race.
Independents this year had to get verified signatures from 866,000 voters, or 1 percent of the electorate on a national level, and also from 1 percent in 17 of Mexico's 31 states plus the capital district. Technical difficulties hampered the complex process, and many had doubted any candidate could qualify.