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El Bronco vs. AMLO: The Fight Is On For Mexico’s Presidential Protest Vote

El Bronco, the country's first independent governor, takes office in Nuevo Leon and amid barbs with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — a hint of both men's anti-system presidential aspirations ahead of 2018 election.
October 9, 2015, 1:10pm
Imagen por Marco Ugarte/AP

Jaime Rodríguez, better known as "El Bronco," has spent his first week as Mexico's first ever governor elected as an independent on a mission to show that he remains a political outsider.

"The party's over for the bandits," Rodriguez said in his inaugural address as the new governor of the northern state of Nuevo León before an audience filled with people he has directly accused of corruption. "If you want money, make it the old-fashion way: work."

El Bronco beat long odds and rules rigged against independent candidates to win office in the northern state famed for industrial fortunes, but also handicapped by crime and graft. Now he is regularly mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in a country consumed by corruption scandals, impunity and deep disenchantment with its entrenched political class.

But Bronco's style and popularity have inevitably put him on a collision course with another anti-system crusader: perpetual presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (pictured above), whose popularity and persistence spooks many of Mexico's political and economic elites.

"They've become the natural rivals for the anti-system vote," said Federico Estevez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, though the solutions they offer are very different.

Lopez Obrador, better known as AMLO, presents "a broad-brushed platform" focused on poverty and inequality, Estevez said. El Bronco hammers home a single issue: "Corruption. That's it."

Just another member of the club?

AMLO has long focused his message around the promise to bring down what he calls "The mafia in power," a group he accuses of stealing the 2006 and 2012 election from him. Now he has begun accusing the cowboy-turned-governor El Bronco of being just another member of the club, maintaining cozy ties with the same politicians he criticizes.

"Pay close attention, don't be mistaken, El Bronco incarnates 'salinismo'" AMLO tweeted referring to the politics of unpopular ex-president and Nuevo Leon native Carlos Salinas. "He is independent from the people, not the mafia in power."

El Bronco fired back that AMLO was the real member of the "mafia in power," having lived for so many years off the public purse. Rodriguez also called Lopez Obrador an "egomaniac."

Related: Mexico Elections Update: 'El Bronco' Rides Wave of Discontent to Big Win in Nuevo Leon

"The presidency isn't his. No one has stolen it from him, he hasn't been able to win it," El Bronco said while visiting Querétaro state last week.  "He's the owner of the glove, the ball, and no one he doesn't want to gets to play," the new governor said in a subsequent radio interview.

The squabble reflects a wider upheaval of Mexican politics — especially with President Enrique Peña Nieto crippled by scandals and polls showing political parties ranking as the country's most corrupt institution — in which voters are embracing alternatives and outsiders.

Jesus Cantu Escalante, director of the school of government at the Monterrey Technological Institute, says both AMLO and El Bronco are putting the party "cartel" system in danger, even if they are not exactly the outsiders they claim to be.

Jaime Rodriguez, El Bronco, wove a wave of discontent to win in Nuevo Leon. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik/VICE News)

AMLO is primarily a danger, Cantu said, because the party he formed in 2014 "doesn't sit at the table" with the other parties. El Bronco's threat lies in his role as the most prominent member of the first wave of independent candidates who were allowed to run in elections for this first time this year thanks to a constitutional reform.

"The political parties are worried," Cantu said. "I can see a person emerging that will break the entire scheme in 2018," when the next presidential election is held.

The disquiet is clear in the eight states that have recently approved so-called "anti-Bronco" laws, which restrict ballot access for independents.

El Bronco was born, he likes to stress, on a ranch with no electricity, telephones or TV.

It also shone through Peña Nieto's speech to the UN general assembly last month in which he denounced "populism on the right and the left." This was taken by many in Mexico as code for AMLO and El Bronco, though his office declined to confirm who he was referencing in the speech.

Meanwhile, an August poll published in the leading Reforma newspaper put AMLO atop a list of preferred potential candidates. Another poll by Parametría showed El Bronco enjoying the best effective preference (the differential between positive and negative ratings) of any of the 21 potential candidates listed.

Related: So Just How Maverick Is the Mexican Elections Indie Winner 'El Bronco'?

For AMLO, the rise of the independents in general, and El Bronco in particularly, can seem like a slap in the face.

The leftist spent years tirelessly touring the country securing the support he needed to register a new party last year called the National Regeneration Movement, or Morena. And then, with conditions in the country now favoring an anti-system candidate, El Bronco suddenly emerged to compete for the same crown.

"I think AMLO feels kind of cheated, because he was pretty much forced into building [a party]" as the rules allowing independent candidates only came into effect this year, said Rodolfo Soriano Nuñez, a sociologist and political observer in Mexico City. "There is room for one and only one messiah in any redemption story."

El Bronco and AMLO share similar histories. Both bolted from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – which currently rules on the federal level and wielded power for most of the last century — though AMLO left in the late 1980s, decades before El Bronco.

AMLO later became Mexico City mayor and introduced measures derided as populist by opponents such as monthly stipends to seniors and single mothers — programs and schemes since implemented by politicians across Mexico, including Peña Nieto. He ran for president in 2006 and narrowly lost a contest that he considered rigged. AMLO tried and failed again in 2012, with the questioned election once again ruled legal.

He subsequently started Morena, effectively splitting the Mexican left into four parties and killing his old coalition, but claiming 8.3 percent of the vote in the 2015 midterms, seats in Congress and access to a share of the more than $300 million in public money split by Mexican political parties.

El Bronco left the PRI when he didn't get the party's 2015 gubernatorial nomination in Nuevo Leon.

He was born, he likes to stress, on a ranch with no electricity, telephones or TV, rose in the PRI ranks and became mayor of a Monterrey-area municipality – where he survived two assassination attempts by Los Zetas, but lost a son in a botched kidnapping. His son's death, he says, inspired his crusade to change the country.

"You know what is politically incorrect," El Bronco told an arena full of supporters who respond to his salty style and language. "It's having the 'avocados' to decide that we can change things."

El Bronco's success also owes much to a modern communications strategy that requires him to spend hours every day personally responding to WhatsApp and Facebook messages, a far cry from AMLO's relentless tours of all of Mexico's more than 2,400 municipalities.

But analysts say that the presence two strong anti-system candidates could ironically pave the way for the PRI's extensive political machine to keep hold of power.

"The PRI only needs to keep its 30 – 35 percent hard core voters," Soriano said. "It is in the interests of the PRI to have as many (opposition) candidates as possible."

Related: Mexico Is Having Its Most Depressing Election in Recent History

Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero