Mexico's most unlikely mayor turfed out by political elite
Accidental leader Juanito forced from office after reneging on promises to quit
Saturday 12 December 2009
They call him "Juanito" but his real name is Rafael Acosta. He's rarely seen in public without a Rambo-style headband.
Sometimes, at rallies, he'll rip off his shirt and reveal a pale, pudgy belly; other times, he'll regale the crowds with unlikely stories about his days as a waiter, wrestler or B-movie actor. He stood for election six months ago as a novelty no-hoper, and abruptly won office, becoming the most talked-about politician in Mexico and clinging on to power for dear life amid the fury of the political establishment. And now, at last, he's been forced to resign.
Acosta, a middle-aged former street vendor from Mexico City, announced on Thursday that he's quitting as Mayor of Iztapalapa, a working-class borough of the nation's capital, after being threatened with prosecution for having falsified paperwork. The accusations made against him included presenting officials with a phoney birth certificate and lying about his family background.
The decision to "permanently leave my post," as Acosta's resignation letter put it, came five months after he swept to power on an extraordinary wave of popular support, and two months after he'd been controversially sworn in. Nine days ago, in a typically eccentric move, he'd gathered a group of supporters, broken into the town hall and staged a noisy sit-in.
His journey, from the streets to high office and back again, has gripped the nation, sparking waves of protests (for and against) and highlighting what many see as skulduggery and corruption endemic in Mexican politics.
The saga began in July, when Clara Brugada, a left-wing candidate for the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) was disqualified on a technicality from standing for election as delegado of Iztapalapa, a borough of two million residents. To ensure they kept power, the PRD decided to withdraw from the race altogether, allowing Acosta, a "joke" candidate with no background in politics, free run at the job.
Acosta promised to step down as soon as he won the election, and to appoint Ms Brugada to replace him. However things immediately started to go wrong with the scheme after he revealed a hidden talent for tapping into public support. In campaign speeches, he was openly critical of the back-scratching that lay behind his run for Mayor. In private, he began showing fondness for the trappings of high office.
Soon the "joke" candidate was on prime-time TV and magazine covers. His eccentricities included wearing a headband with the word "Juanito" scrawled on it in marker pen – a nickname he earned when he coached a youth football team in which 11 of the 15 players were called Juan.
Ordinary voters were delighted that a man who just weeks earlier was selling ice creams from a small cart could achieve power in a country where national politics is run by a cosy establishment, dominated by President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party, and riddled with corruption. He became an anti-establishment hero. After his inevitable victory, Acosta decided to renege on his original agreement to stand down. The move saw him subjected to enormous pressure from both supporters and opponents. In October, he was sworn into the 1,080,000 pesos (£51,000) a year job, in front of a vast crowd. Some onlookers chanted "Traitor!" and others implored: "Don't resign!"
Minutes later, he asked for a leave of absence, citing poor health, and appointed Brugada as his temporary replacement. He disappeared for two months, but returned last week. After spending two days camped outside the town hall of Iztapalapa, he got locksmiths to let him in, and attempted to start his term in office.
That move appears to have provoked a co-ordinated campaign by the political establishment to bring "Juanito" down by any means possible. Brugada appealed to the Mexico City legislature to get rid of him. Other opponents began trawling through his past. Eventually the problems with his birth certificate were made public, forcing him to quit.
"He has become a folkloric figure," said local writer Carlos Monsivais. "With each passing day, he's become a less picturesque and more pathetic sign of what the powerful groups in politics are capable of."
Election surprises: Oddballs in office
*Hartlepool FC mascot H'Angus the monkey – also known as Stuart Drummond, the man who wore the costume at matches – stood for election to the local mayoralty 2002, promising free bananas for children. Much to everyone's surprise, the monkey won. To further surprise, he has proved popular, winning re-election twice. But he has so far been unable to make good on his banana pledge.
*Jesse Ventura was best known as a WWF wrestler with the nickname "The Body" and the slogan: "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat." Then he decided to get into politics. His anti-establishment campaign won him four colourful years as the governor of Minnesota, in a shock win over the mainstream candidates.
*Porn star La Cicciolina served in the Italian parliament for five years in the 1980s, on a platform of free love. She continued to make sex films in office, and offered to sleep with Saddam Hussein if it would stop the Gulf War.
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