The popular movement and the electoral strategy. An indigenous candidate for Mexico

María de Jesus Patricio

Alessandro Zagato looks at the strategy change of the EZLN, running an electoral candidate for the first time for the 2018 presidential elections.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took a surprising twist to their history back on 10 October 2016, one which could yet shape the future of Mexican politics. Together with the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), which they are integrated with, they announced their intention to nominate an indigenous woman as an independent candidate for the upcoming presidential election in 2018 - “an indigenous woman, a CNI delegate, who speaks her indigenous language and knows her culture”. However, they immediately made clear that this initiative would not follow a conventional course. Instead, the indigenous movement of Mexico intends to use the electoral deadline as a means to set off a widespread process of articulation of autonomous and grassroots organizations at national scale, aimed at transforming the political system from the bottom up.

The EZLN gave birth to this idea but the CNI is implementing the proposal after it was approved by a massive grassroots consultation that covered the entire country between October and December 2016, involving 523 communities from 25 different states and of 43 ethnic groups.

The Zapatista leadership sees this strategy as a means to awakening a “sleeping force”. They refer to all those groups that have embraced autonomy - completely or partially, in the countryside and in the city - a fragmented universe that does not attract sensationalist chronicles. Based on an investigation by the Ibero-American University of Puebla, Víctor Toledo (2016) estimates that in just five Mexican states there are more than a thousand autonomous projects, ranging from the Zapatista Caracoles to indigenous organic coffee cooperatives, self-defense groups, and self-managed communities.

This constellation follows a political “paradigm of living” (paradigma del habitar – Fernandez Savater 2016) which is grounded in day to day life, and which can be heightened, starting from the strengths it holds. It is not a matter of inventing something new, but of empowering and to some extent reconfiguring what already exists.
“May the earth tremble at its core” states the conclusive document of the fifth national congress of the CNI jointly signed by the CNI and the EZLN. It calls “on all the indigenous people and civil society to organize to put a stop to destruction and strengthen our resistances and rebellions, that is, the defense of the life of every person, family, collective, community, or barrio. We make a call to construct peace and justice by connecting ourselves from below, from where we are what we are.” The final paragraph proclaims the will to construct a new nation by and for everyone, by strengthening power below and the anti-capitalist left.

The proposal has generated surprise. After the announcement, in a plenary session where it was strictly forbidden to take any video or audio, Subcomandante Galeano (military leader and spokesperson of the EZLN - previously Marcos) encouraged the attendees to “take the idea of subversion seriously and turn everything upside down, starting from your own heart”. That counterintuitive idea offered indeed an unprecedented possibility to the indigenous movement and beyond. However, it also needed (and still needs) time to be properly processed by many activists and sympathizers.

On the one hand, this initiative takes place in a conjuncture that many see as unfavorable. There is indeed a generalized and growing distrust in the electoral procedure, especially in a country like Mexico where results are often decided by vote buying and fraud. Moreover, Latin America is experiencing an apparent downturn of the so-called “pink tide” - the wave of progressive governments that shaped the region since the early 2000s. The current right wing counteroffensive seems to call for grassroots resistance rather than electoral engagement. This is the argument of intellectuals like Raúl Zibechi and George Ciccariello-Maher, who argues that the choice today is increasingly between la comuna o nada, the commune or nothing. On the other hand, the electoral proposal is counterintuitive and somehow contradictory to many Mexican filo-Zapatistas due to the critical position that the EZLN have traditionally held towards elections, prompting their adherents to go instead for independent organizing and autonomy.

Nevertheless, an electoral victory would not be the main goal here. “Have no doubt, we are going for everything, because we know this might be the last opportunity” has declared the CNI. Their strategy will consist in actively interfering in (or “occupying”) the electoral procedure and turn it into the possibility for a generalized process of organization and emancipation - “a nonviolent uprising, the last one in the history of the indigenous peoples of Mexico” foresees Filo, a CNI member, in a prophetic tone.

In the meantime, the Indigenous Government Council (CIG) - one of the most intriguing developments of this initiative – is slowly taking shape. The Council operates like a national assembly of the representatives (more than hundred people - half of them are women) of all the groups composing the CNI. It should grow as an intermediate space, a hybrid body situated between the state apparatus and society, between the government and the organized groups spread over the national territory.

The CIG epitomizes a decentered conception of political representation that rejects concentration of power into the hands of a single individual. It reflects the structure of many organized indigenous communities. “We reject an occidental individualist conception of politics” has argued a CIG delegate. The council operates based on the the rule of mandar obedeciendo (“ruling by obeying”), an oxymoron reflecting the ambivalent nature of power, which shapes autonomous self-government in Zapatismo. The challenge will be now to apply this principle to the functioning of the state.

The spokesperson for this network - and presidential candidate - is María de Jesús Patricio, known as Marichuy, an indigenous Nahuatl woman born in Tuxpan, a small town of the state of Jalisco where she grew up in poverty. “We had to propose one individual candidate” a council member argued “simply because the national law does not allow registering a full assembly or a council … Thus we are registering our spokesperson in order to comply with the Electoral Law, but the council will always come first”.

María directs a health center in the Calli neighborhood of Tuxpam since 1995, where indigenous medicine is practiced and researched. “Through the health center we defend traditional medicine, indigenous territories, and the mother earth based on an anti-capitalist approach and the libertarian struggle of the indigenous people”. Having directly experienced from a young age poverty and oppression, María de Jesus was deeply inspired by the Zapatista uprising of 1994. And she became a founding member of the CNI.

In her first press conference (May 2017) she remarked that the aim of the indigenous coalition is not to collect votes or achieve power positions. “Our engagement” she said “is for life, for organization, and for the reconstitution of our people who have been under attack for centuries. Time has come to find a new configuration for us to keep existing.” She suggested that this is also an invitation for all oppressed sectors of society to “join the struggle and destroy a system that is about to exterminate us … This is a real alternative to the war that we are experiencing”.

A tension this initiative will need to address, is that for a project going far beyond the 2018 electoral deadline, the symbolic weight and historical momentum of proposing (for the first time ever) a female indigenous candidate for presidency are there and need to be considered. Even more after the recent earthquake that revealed, once more, governmental incompetence and inconsistency, the egalitarian agenda of the EZLN-CNI could resonate among sectors of the population who are not organized or politicized, but who would be happy to be governed by somebody like María de Jesús Patricio.

At the time of writing, the campaign for the presidential election has just kicked off. For María to be able to participate in the electoral process almost a million signatures distributed in at least 17 states will need to be collected and submitted to the National Electoral Institute. This calls for an exceptional logistic effort. Furthermore, many members of the organizations composing the CNI are not even registered citizens, and they have no voting credential. This is in some cases due to marginalization. However, this is mainly the result of a choice to be fully independent from the state.

Perhaps the electoral mobilization of these anti-citizens will play a key role in the strategy adopted by the CNI-EZLN – as the participation of unarmed soldiers was symbolically fundamental in the 1994 uprising. As always when it comes to Zapatismo, one needs to be prepared for the unexpected. A delegate of the CNI observes that “in 94 nobody could imagine autonomous schools, hospitals and Caracoles”. Today it is impossible to foresee how things will develop. For this campaign to be successful the coalition will have to mobilize non-indigenous sectors of Mexican society, including students, peasants and workers.


Ciccariello Maher, George. 2016. Bulding the Commune. Radical Democracy in Venezuela. London: Verso
Fernández Savater, Amador. 2016. “Del paradigma del gobierno al paradigma del habitar: por un cambio de cultura política”. El Diario 11 March.
Toledo, Victor. 2016. “México: la rebelión silenciosa ya comenzó”. La Jornada, 13 September.

Alessandro Zagato