Independent candidate on the rise in Mexico, benefiting with voter disgust of party politics

Mexicans' disgust with corrupt, aloof, high-living politicians has a name, and it's El Bronco. The horseback-riding, boot-clad, tough-talking Jaime Rodriguez lives up to his nickname.

As mayor of a suburb of the northern industrial city of Monterrey, he survived two assassination attempts that left his car bullet-ridden, defying, he says, the fierce Zetas cartel. Now Rodriguez is trying to beat the odds in another way, running as an independent for governor of Nuevo Leon, a wealthy and strategic state bordering Texas.

The June 7 midterm election is the first time the country has allowed unaffiliated candidates, thanks to an electoral reform last year. But the law allows him only a fraction of the campaign financing the government gives political parties.

Although it is a state race, Rodriguez has captured the national imagination with his unorthodox manner and unrefined speech. He explains the challenges of his uphill race this way: "Sometimes God slaps you upside the head to make you get with program."

El Bronco says his nickname, and his blunt style just "show people that I'm the same as them, that I'm nobody different, that I'm just another guy who wants things to change, and things to be better."

Midterm elections, in which 500 members of congress, 17 state legislatures, nine governors and more than 300 mayors will be chosen, are usually viewed as a referendum on the president's performance half-way through his six-year term.

But this year it seems to be a referendum on the parties. In an opinion poll carried out by the lower house of congress earlier this year, 75 percent said they had little or no confidence in any party. The margin of error was 3.9 percentage points.

"This breath of fresh air could be just the shock the parties need, at least in Nuevo Leon," Luis Carlos Ugalde, former head of the Mexico's national election commission, told local media.

Critics point out that Rodriguez spent 33 years in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and quit eight months ago to take advantage of the new law. But voters see him as an alternative in political system rife with cronyism and corruption. Current Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina has taken out full-page newspaper ads to deny widespread claims of corruption, allegations Rodriguez says he will pursue if he's elected.

"I think that in Nuevo Leon, we are seeing the first Mexican Spring," Rodriguez told The Associated Press, comparing his quixotic quest for the governorship to pro-democracy movements like the Arab Spring of 2010 or the Prague Spring of 1968.

That might be an overstatement. But Rodriguez's support harkens back to 2000, when another plainspoken cowboy candidate, Vicente Fox, managed to topple the PRI's 71-year rule and win the presidency for the opposition National Action Party.

Fox rode a wave of discontent with the authoritarian and corrupt rule of the PRI. But the last 15 years have convinced many voters that National Action and other opposition parties mirror the PRI in terms of corruption scandals and accusations of politicians getting rich off public funds.

This time around, it's all political parties that Mexicans appear to hate. People are so fed up that parties have trouble giving away pens and T-shirts on the streets, and youthful brigades have organized on the Internet to rip down campaign posters from lampposts and trees in some Mexico City neighborhoods.

Last week, Fernando Elizondo of the Citizen Movement party ended his gubernatorial campaign and threw his support behind Rodriguez. A day later, a poll by the newspaper Reforma showed Rodriguez with 31 percentage points, five ahead of his nearest opponent, Ivonne Alvarez of the PRI. The poll had a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points.

Rodriguez's style is all wild west, with campaign videos showing him riding horseback or describing bullets raining down on his truck in an assassination attempt.

When former President Felipe Calderon unfavorably compared the charismatic Rodriguez to deceased former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, El Bronco shot back: "I think Calderon must have been either drunk, or hung over."

El Bronco's public support for "self-defense" vigilantes in Michoacan — ranchers and farmers who armed themselves to drive out a drug cartel in 2013 — led ruling-party candidate Alvarez to run an ad showing a motley group of vigilante-style gunmen holding assault rifles and a baby, with a narration: "Nothing is more important than your children. Who do you want caring for them?

And in what appears to be a counteroffensive by the PRI, leaked official documents quote people suggesting, without firm proof, that Rodriguez has ties to the Zetas, the cartel he battled as mayor. He denies those allegations.

El Bronco says he wants peaceful change, but tells people in Nuevo Leon, a state shattered by drug violence, that he can feel their pain. His own 22-year-old son was killed in 2009 in what initially appeared and accident, but which may have been a kidnapping.

As an independent candidate, he is excluded from the generous government financing given to political parties, so he has conducted his campaign largely using social media, and he passes the hat at raucous campaign rallies.

Political parties get essentially all their financing from tax money, and they are criticized for their bloated budgets for government cars, trips, bodyguards, advisors, offices and meals, angering people in a country where the minimum wage is under $5 per day.

Rodriguez says he wants change things all that. And despite inequitable financing rules, he pulled together hundreds of thousands of signatures to run as an independent candidate.

"I have two emotions that guide me," Rodriguez said. "My family deserves someone who can protect them, and the other that, in this country we need somebody who will do things differently."