|Turmoil in Puerto Rico's two major political parties was evident this week, as both statehood and commonwealth forces began to attack their own.
In the New Progressive Party, the public questioning of the effectiveness of party president Carlos Pesquera's leadership is reaching a new cresendo that could set the scene for a primary challenge to his gubernatorial ambitions in 2004.
In the Popular Democratic Party, nobody is seriously doubting the leadership of Gov. Calderón, but she is perhaps the only figure in the PDP hierarchy that retains that security. Rebellious representatives this week openly discussed plans for a potential coup to drive House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrondo from office.
Besides making for some good newspaper headlines, the internal squabbling is probably good for the two parties -- although both are loathe to admit it.
Political parties here have long tried to pick candidates by consensus, rather than through a primary battle. They argue that primaries create harmful internal divisions in the party as well as damage the image of the victorious candidate who has to go on and face the real opponent in the general election.
But primary battles can also just as easily invigorate a party in the doldrums, giving the base membership a reason to get excited. And by confronting divisions, primaries can also help a party get past them.
Pesquera has been dogged by questions of weak leadership since he returned to take over the reigns of the party last year -- earning him a "prodigal son" logo after abruptly quitting the post shortly after his defeat in the November 2000 elections.
But those questions have been steadily building, fueled most recently by comments by two former governors: Carlos Romero Barceló and Pedro Rosselló.
Romero said this week that it was way too early to be talking about party candidates for the 2004 elections, and he made a point of including the post of gubernatorial candidate -- which Pesquera has claimed as his since returning as party president.
When Romero was asked if he would run for an office, the political veteran repeated the same phrase -- it's too early to be discussing candidacies. It was a good way to make sure to let people know he was interested without directly saying so.
Meanwhile, Rosselló, who has given several interviews since the collapse of the federal investigation into the Education Department scandal under his administration, also made clear that Pesquera has no inherent right to the gubernatorial candidacy.
"The people decide on candidates," Rosselló said, a statement many interpreted as a call for primaries.
Pesquera insists he will be the candidate in 2004. Although he said he does not fear primaries, he said he does not forsee them occuring.
Pesquera supporters, meanwhile, like Guaynabo Mayor Héctor O'Neill, have challenged Romero and Rosselló to announce their intentions to run if they want to do so.
Driving this speculation has been the increased public profile by Rosselló, who also asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate the behavior of former U.S. Attorney Guillermo Gil, who the former governor accused of selectively persecuting members of his administration.
There is even talk of Rosselló running as the resident commissioner candidate in 2004.
When criticized by Romero that he should have known that members of his administration were committing wrongdoings, Rosselló shot back that people were still convinced Romero knew about the police involvement in the Cerro Maravilla killings.
Some of this bad blood could tarnish a party that has been bashed by corruption scandals over the past two years.
But a primary will accomplish one great goal for the NPP -- determine who is the undisputed leader of the party. Pesquera -- or a opponent who defeats him -- will only come out fortified as a result.
One only has to look back to the last election, when Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, Calderón's hand-picked candidate for resident commissioner, was challenged by José Hernández Mayoral.
When her candidate prevailed, Calderón's strength as a leader increased markedly.
Meanwhile, PDP lawmakers angry at Vizcarrondo are openly discussing a coup. The coup plotters complain that Vizcarrondo has hurt the public perception of the House and will be a liability in the next elections.
His handling of the delayed swearing in of NPP Rep. Edwin Mundo certainly has damaged the reputation of the House leadership.
But most renegade PDP representatives are angrier about his House Secretary Néstor Duprey's proposal to eliminate cars, cell phones and per diem payments as part of a sweeping legislative reform. Duprey rightly argued that such measures were needed to restore public trust in the House.
Whether the coup will come to fruition is still not clear.
What is clear is that the main political parties in Puerto Rico should not fear fighting their battles in public.
It's far better than the time-honored tradition of reaching deals behind closed doors.
John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net