"We are doing the first grassroots campaign in Tijuana," Antonio Ley tells the Reader. "We are doing it Obama style." Ley is the downtown canvass coordinator for one of the independent candidates running for Tijuana's city mayor, Gastón Luken Garza. It's the first time in Baja that independent candidates are able to be in the ballots if they acquire signatures from 2.5% registered voters (30,703 + copies of their voting IDs). The entrance to Luken's downtown office is decorated with his face and name in the style of Obama's "HOPE" posters.
In fact, Mexican and American politics can be very similar. Instead of a two-party system, there are several small parties that end up pledging allegiance to the top three parties: PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, center), PAN (National Action Party, right-center) and PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution, left-center). Across Mexico, polls have shown that all three main parties are at a low point in voters' opinions. Corruption is so blatant in Mexican politics that the common saying during elections is people vote "for the one that steals the least," or "el menos peor" (the least worst).
In recent years, there's been a surge of independent candidates throughout Mexico, thanks to an amendment that passed in 2012. Many of those candidates run on the platform that they are not "politicians" in the traditional sense, though many have political background.
"We are not worried about the supposed independents," says Gilberto Herrera, a political analyst for PSN network and the operational link for MORENA's committee in Baja. "If they get votes, they'll take them from the party that used to represent them not too long ago."
MORENA (National Regeneration Movement) is a left-wing political party created by Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It started as a cross-party organization in 2012 to support López's second candidacy for president in 2012 under PRD. López left PRD and joined his own creation, MORENA, where he intends to run for president of Mexico for the third time in the 2018 elections (after losing in both the 2006 and 2012). After López left PRD for MORENA, PRD moved closer to center politics, losing followers to MORENA, which is the fastest growing party in Mexico.
"It seems like all of them have a 'Broncomania'," says Herrera, referring to Jaime Rodríguez Calderón (a cussing rancher known as 'El Bronco'), the current governor of the state of Nuevo Leon (border with Texas). El Bronco is the first governor to win in Mexico through independent candidacy in 2014.
"At a local level, I can tell you that those who call themselves 'independents' are nothing but a group of opportunists who decided to join the new trend caused by El Bronco. I don't consider them authentic. They are doing it because it's a trend and all of them have a direct link to others in power. Especially Gastón Luken, who built his political career with PAN, one of the political parties that has damaged Baja for 27 years."
El Bronco also came from a heavy political background, but instead of being a politician with PAN he was with the top party, PRI. The PRI held presidential power in Mexico for 71 years, lost it to PAN in 2000 (with presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón), and recovered the presidency again in 2012 with a highly controversial election win for current president Enrique Peña Nieto.
"Just like independent craft beer, you can say I am the independent craft candidate," Gastón Luken told me in a February 25th meeting at Fauna's tap room as he talked with Antonio Ley and Leo de la Torre, a partner of several tap rooms in Plaza Fiesta.
"You have to get your permits through your competitor? That's absurd," says Luken, who has little knowledge of the craft beer scene in Tijuana and is incredulous that to open a tap room, most brewers apply for a permit through Cuahtémoc Moctezuma, a subsidiary of Heineken International. De la Torre explained to Luken that city hall has in fact been very helpful to facilitate permits and loans for craft brewers, stopping Luken's promises that under his government brewers will have it easier.
"If you guys like what we are doing, a toda madre If you don't, pues a chingar a su madre," says Luken, who, like Bronco, has adopted the use of colloquialism when he talks. "You usually only had two options [at the polls], vote for more of the same, or not to vote. The political parties right now do not represent us. For the first time you have a second choice to vote for someone that will make a difference. The government has a tumor and it can't function right, we have to remove the tumor and cure the city."
(A toda madre, literal translation = on full mother. It means awesome).
(A chingar a su madre, literal translation = to go f--- a mother. It means f--- off).
"Every morning when I wake up, le digo a mi vieja (I tell my old lady), I want some eggs with [voter's] signatures on the side," says Luken, who presented over 49,000 signatures to the Electoral Institute for the State on March 3rd. "It's going to be an uphill battle, va estar cabrón. They will try to stop us from getting there, and if we get there, they will try to stop our every move, nos van a traer a toallazos. We are not going to promise much, but we will have un chingo of proposals. We want to let the parties know that we are hasta la madre, and we want them out."
(Va estar cabrón = they'll make it tough)
(Nos van a traer a toallazos, literal translation = they will be hitting us with towels. Idiom for riding someone's back).
(Un chingo = a f--kton).
(Hasta la madre, literal translation = up to our mother. Idiom for I've had it up to here).
"The aspiring independent candidates have not understood that they are creating mini-parties to have the capacity to compete," Victor Alejandro Espinoza, an investigator for Colegio de la Frontera, comments for El Sol de Tijuana. "Even though they say they are tired of politicians, the search for power turns them into politicians themselves, even if the group Tijuana Independiente doesn't like to hear it."
Tijuana Independiente is a recent group of people without a party. "We're not perfect, but we have a clear objective: to return the attention to the needs of the citizens" (translated from their Facebook description). The group supports all sorts of different independent aspiring candidates, but with Luken as a leader. Their webpage takes you to Luken's official webpage.
"Tijuana is not PANista nor PRIista, Tijuana is (simply) Tijuana," Cesar Faz says in a video published by the group República de Baja California. "Let's build a Tijuana identity and fight for it. If we all unite, we are going to beat them." Cesar Faz is co-creator of the group with Juan Carlos Reyna. They started as a separatist group to criticize politicians. Both Reyna and Faz started posting videos calling for citizens to support them with exaggerated hand gestures that only politicians do.
República de Baja California supports several independent candidates for Mexican congress in Baja including Gastón Luken.
Luken has said that he has never been affiliated with a political party (despite working previously with PAN) and tries to distance himself from his past. He made a video of himself slicing and eating a piece of bread, symbolizing his departure from PAN ("pan" translates to "bread" in Spanish). Coincidentally, Luken's first business in 1982 was a successful bakery in Mexicali and Tijuana called "La Baguette."
República de Baja California and Tijuana Independiente with Gastón Luken as their unofficial leader, are in the process of becoming what they most condemn, political parties. But with strong social media presence, creative GIFs, quality videos, and under the claim that they are not politicians, they are achieving a historical event in Mexican politics by creating an interest for youth to get to the polls.
The other politicians looking for the position of city mayor are René Mendevil with PRI, Juan Manuel Gastelum of PAN, Ismael Burgueño with MORENA, Vicente Vega of PRD, Catalina Salas with Movimiento Ciudadano, Héctor Osuna Jaime with Partido de Baja California, Julián Leyzaola with Partido Encuentro Social, Ignacio Anaya with Partido Peninsular de las Californias, and one independent candidate, Gastón Luken. Carolina Aubanel and Carlos Atilano, two other independent candidates, also presented more than 30,703 signatures requested by Elbut did not get approval by the Electoral Institute. The independent candidates are contesting the thousands of invalidated signatures.
Elections will be held on Sunday, June 5th, 2016.
According to a poll by El Tijuanense from February 29, Luken and Leyzaola are tied at 19 percent, Gastelum with 15 percent, Mendevil at 14 percent, and trailing behind with only 7 percent for Burgeño. (Fifteen percent of those polled were undecided, and other candidates garnered less than 5 percent). Other polls show different results, with PRI or PAN at the top.
Story originally published in San Diego Reader.