Wave of Independent Politicians Seek to ‘Open Cracks’ in Mexico’s Status Quo

Pedro Kumamoto, 28, center, the first independent candidate to win a seat in the state Congress in Jalisco, is now running for the federal Senate in Mexico.

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — In a cafe in downtown Guadalajara, Pedro Kumamoto, 28, an independent politician running for a Senate seat, was savoring his early morning coffee when a middle-aged man approached.

“I am sorry to interrupt — I just wanted to greet you,” the older man said, his eyes starting to tear up. “I am sorry for getting emotional, but you are a true inspiration.”

Such effusive displays of appreciation for politicians are unusual in Mexico, but encounters like this have become common for Mr. Kumamoto, an indication of how hungry Mexicans have become for alternative leaders amid growing disenchantment with the traditional political parties.

Two years ago, Mr. Kumamoto was elected as the first independent legislator in the state Congress of Jalisco, a feat possible only after a 2014 change to the federal Constitution allowed for candidates not affiliated with parties. Now, Mr. Kumamoto, a self-described “social democrat,” is leading in the polls for a seat in the federal Senate.

He is among dozens of independent candidates running for state or federal office in the July 1 general election who are looking to deliver a sharp rebuke to politics as usual in Mexico.

Among Mexican voters, there is “a great dissatisfaction with the traditional partisan system and the states’ lack of ability to respond to citizens’ demands,” said Alejandro Poiré, secretary of the interior in the administration of President Felipe Calderón, whose term ended in 2012. “A growing number of citizens,” he added, are “trying to partake in this system through alternative channels.”

For instance, 16 members of Wikipolítica, a leftist youth movement founded in 2013, have qualified to run as independent candidates for federal and state races. Many are under 30, and they include Mr. Kumamoto.

Independent political candidates celebrated with supporters after collecting enough signatures to run for Congress in Jalisco State.

“We share a common principle, and that is if you don’t get yourself involved in politics, someone else will come and do it for you,” Mr. Kumamoto said, describing the goals of Wikipolítica, whose name, a play on Wikipedia, is meant to suggest grass-roots politics.

The political establishment, as embodied by the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which held power uninterrupted from 1929 to 2000, is perceived by many Mexicans as inclined to corruption and graft.

“To be born and grow up in a country ruled by the PRI meant you thought that there was one way of doing politics,” said Roberto Castillo, 27, a founding member of Wikipolítica, who is now running for a seat in Mexico City’s state-level Congress. “This meant patronage politics over merit, knowledge or leadership, and we were made to believe that was morally acceptable,” he said. “But that is changing.”

Carlos Brito is another youth activist looking to enter and change the political system.

An earthquake in September left thousands of people homeless in his small hometown, Jojutla, in the south-central state of Morelos, and local leaders were accused of hoarding aid for the victims. Mr. Brito, 30, said he could not bear the outrage, so he decided to run for mayor, leaving a successful digital start-up in Mexico City and moving back to Jojutla.

Both Mr. Kumamoto and Mr. Brito said one of the biggest challenges facing independent candidates is overcoming voter skepticism that the political status quo can be challenged.

“We have been convinced by this lunatic idea that nothing will ever change,” Mr. Kumamoto said. “That is what I call the anticipated defeat, and we must realize that is simply not true.”

Mr. Brito…

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