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Mexico’s First Independent State Deputy Tries to Stay Different

The idealistic 25-year-old college graduate Pedro Kumamoto challenges the corrupt and jaded image of Mexican politicians. Now he’s under pressure to prove he can stay real.

by Duncan Tucker
Jan 6 2016, 9:30pm

Imagen por Duncan Tucker

It is hardly uncommon to see protesters gathering outside government buildings to berate public officials in Mexico. Yet a more unusual occurrence unfolded recently as angry demonstrators outside the state congress building in Jalisco suddenly began chanting words of praise.

Cries of "I love you!" and "Kumamoto for president!" rang out after they caught sight of a banner hanging from a ground-floor window with the words "Walls do fall."

The phrase was the campaign slogan of Pedro Kumamoto, who last year became the first ever independent candidate to win a seat in a state congress. During the campaign the 25-year-old college graduate challenged the prevailing image of Mexican legislators as overpaid and out of touch with the public. Now he's under pressure to prove he really is different.

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

He did not get off to an ideal start.

When he was sworn into office on November 1, one viewer of the live stream on Periscope asked why Kumamoto was dressed in a formal jacket instead of the more casual clothing he wore on the campaign trail. The implication was that his change in attire signified assimilation into the political establishment.

"I got it wrong that day," Kumamoto told VICE News in a later interview, adding that he needed to be more careful not to appear like other politicians.

"Kuma" came out of nowhere to win a landslide victory in Mexico's mid-term elections in June to represent a largely middle class area of Zapopan, a sprawling district that borders Guadalajara, the Jalisco state capital.

His victory was both unlikely and unprecedented, as 2015 was the first year independent candidates have been allowed to run for office in Mexico. 

At the national level, his success was largely overshadowed by the triumph of the straight-talking Jaime "El Bronco" Rodríguez, who became Mexico's first independent governor in the wealthy northern state of Nuevo León. Yet, while some have questioned Rodríguez's anti-establishment credentials due to his 33-year allegiance with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Kumamoto appears to be a more genuine outsider.

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

Kumamoto insists that he has rejected several offers from political parties. Instead, he represents Wikipolítica, a grassroots movement of liberal activists with branches in Jalisco, Mexico City, and the coastal city of La Paz in Baja California Sur.

Although he is driven by liberal causes — like combating economic, gender, and sexual preference inequality — Kumamoto consciously avoids presenting himself as a leftist politician for fear of being pigeonholed as just another figure among Mexico's fractured and often fractious left.

For now, his primary focus is on fighting corruption and encouraging civic participation in politics by introducing reforms that would give citizens the right to vote on what their taxes are spent on, and to call new elections if dissatisfied by the performance of local officials.

Photo by Duncan Tucker

He has got himself elected president of the congressional commission for citizen participation and also sits on the commissions for culture, finance, mobility, gender equality, and political coordination.

But with no allies in a congress that is dominated by the traditional political parties filled with seasoned political sharks, Kumamoto has his work cut out for him.

Enrique Toussaint, a political analyst from Guadalajara, said that Kumamoto undoubtedly has a symbolic weight as Jalisco's first independent congressman, but his idealism, honesty, inexperience, and outspoken nature could cause him problems if he fails to meet the public's elevated expectations.

He also questioned whether Kumamoto's liberal views are truly in tune with those of his constituents, who live in a historically conservative district.

"He has to ask others for opinions, he has to be wary of the (political) processes, and he has to get close to people with more experience," Toussaint said. "People don't realize how complicated the processes are, and that they're deliberately designed that way to form a barrier that causes many problems for newcomers."

The analyst also predicted that the media may soon turn against Kumamoto if he refuses to follow what he called the "perverse" tradition of politicians paying outlets for favorable coverage.

"I certainly didn't come here to make friends. I came to work." Kumamoto said. "I hope to not create enemies but if it has to be done then so be it. That's politics."

Related: 'People Are Fed Up': Jalisco Elections Could Upend Traditional Politics in Mexico

The novice politician drew raised eyebrows during the opening sessions when he launched into lengthy and passionate monologues he said made him feel "like the geeky kid at school who'd done his homework."

His appearance furthers that impression. That dalliance with the formal jacket aside, he usually sports plain shirts, chinos, casual shoes, and an unfussy haircut that stand out among the suits, ties, and slicked-back hair favored by the majority of congressmen.

Kumamoto also makes a statement by going to work using Guadalajara's public bikes-sharing scheme, while most of his peers travel in luxury SUV's, often with chauffeurs.

His attitude certainly seemed to astound a member of Mexico's Green Party and president of the transport commission, who by the look of surprise on his face, seemed hardly aware of the existence of the biking system and shocked that a deputy would use it.

One PRI legislator dropped by Kumamoto's office while VICE News was present to moan about the the independent's willingness to greet the demonstrators from his district who had gathered outside that morning complaining that they had been forcibly evicted from their homes. He appeared upset that Kumamoto — who had listened to the protesters and advised them how to proceed with their complaints — had broken the bond of solidarity between legislators. 

"He hasn't been corrupted like this ball of rats!" one woman shouted in the direction of congress, where the other deputies were sheltered behind security personnel.

Related: Mexico's Green Party Offered Illegal Cash to Sports Stars for Support on Social Media

Looking to the future, Kumamoto said that his three-year term is essentially a political experiment for the nascent Wikipolítica movement.

"We have to analyze whether it's worth being in congress," he said. "If we realize it doesn't work, that we're just being accomplices to a system that is not designed to be modified, then we'll continue working in civil society."

On a more personal level, however, Kumamoto said that he will consider his term a success if at the end of it he can "still go out on the streets and have people recognize me with a smile."

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter:@DuncanTucker

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