MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) - “One dead son, one kidnapped two-year-old daughter and 2,800 bullet holes in my truck” is no typical campaign slogan. Then again, the man who may become the first state governor in modern Mexico without a political party is no typical politician.
Jaime Rodriguez, alias “El Bronco,” would cause one of the biggest upsets in Mexican political history if his anti-establishment campaign claims the wealthy northern state of Nuevo Leon in midterm elections to be held next Sunday.
A former member of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the 57-year-old Rodriguez launched his bid thanks to a change in the law that now allows independent candidates to run for high office.
Tapping into anger over political corruption scandals, sickening drug gang violence and anemic economic growth, his run has become a litmus test for the electorate’s desire to break with years of political apathy.
“I‘m fighting against a system that’s old, out of date and obsolete,” Rodriguez said in May. “There’s a political aristocracy with an incredible egotism, with an incredible arrogance that doesn’t accept that the country has problems.”
Nuevo Leon is one of nine states choosing new governors on June 7, when a new lower house of Congress will also be elected.
With its allies, the PRI has a slim majority in the lower house, and voter surveys suggest it could defend that. But a loss in Nuevo Leon would hurt the PRI and help set the tone for the next presidential election in 2018.
Rodriguez closed his campaign in Nuevo Leon’s capital Monterrey on Sunday with a speech heavy on criticism of established parties but light on the details of his pledges to help the poor, end government waste and battle corruption.
Pena Nieto has become bogged down in scandals over houses he, his wife and his finance minister bought from government contractors, and he came under renewed fire last week when a Reuters report showed he misrepresented how he acquired a plot of land in a lakeside retreat near Mexico City.
In Nuevo Leon, the incumbent PRI governor is mired in separate allegations of corruption, threatening the hold the party has on a state where gross domestic product per capita is some $20,000, about twice the national average.
Monterrey is home to many of Mexico’s top companies, including cement giant Cemex, conglomerate Alfa and food and beverage company Femsa. The PRI has surrendered Nuevo Leon just once, to the center-right National Action Party (PAN), the only other party to have ruled Mexico in the modern era.
PRI officials expect the Nuevo Leon race to be very tight, with some opinion polls forecasting a win for Rodriguez, who was PRI mayor of the Monterrey suburb of Garcia between 2009 and 2012.
Nicknamed “bronco” or “gruff,” ranch-owner Rodriguez was the target of two assassination attempts while mayor.
His son died in a 2009 road accident which he said was an attempted kidnapping, and he reported his daughter was kidnapped by the Zetas, one of Mexico’s most violent drug gangs.
His campaign has raised hackles in his old party, while on the PAN side, former President Felipe Calderon likened him to Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s late leftist leader.
If elected, Rodriguez would have to work with a state congress likely dominated by PRI and PAN deputies.
Critics say this is a recipe for chaos.
Still, less than three weeks before the election, one rival, center-left candidate Fernando Elizondo, a former PAN politician and interim governor of Nuevo Leon, decided to back him and drop out of the race.
Rodriguez has also won support from local entrepreneurs, many of whom are chafing at government tax increases from 2014.
“The fiscal reform is one of the main reasons why there’s no economic growth,” said Fernando Turner, a prominent local businessman backing Rodriguez. “We need change in Nuevo Leon, and in the country. People are fed up with the impunity and corruption in the PRI and PAN governments.”
Additional reporting by Max de Haldevang; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Simon Gardner