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Orlando Sentinel

Ruling May Help Struggling 3rd Party Get A Foot In The Door In San Juan

By Iván Román

March 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Forget the audacity of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló returning to Puerto Rico this weekend to start a bid for a third term as more corruption scandals from his administration loom.

Forget the chest-beating indignation this news about Rosselló brings out in Gov. Sila Calderón as she goes around the island touting the $1 billion-plus she is spending to empower the poor to change their lives.

What's gotten some people's attention in this shrill political environment is a court ruling that could change the island's electoral landscape for good -- or at least force those in power to deal with sectors they ignored before.

When U.S. District Judge Hector Laffitte ruled part of Puerto Rico's election law unconstitutional last week, he made it easier for people to get new political parties on the ballot. Until now, the system seemed sealed up by the Puerto Rican Independence Party, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party, the flag bearer for the current commonwealth status.

Despite some ill-fated attempts to branch out by disgruntled party leaders, the New Progressive and Popular Democratic parties have essentially taken turns in power since 1940. Members of a fledgling Civil Action Party wanted to change that in 1997, but getting the 106,000 individually lawyer-notarized petitions --- at $15 to $50 a pop -- was just too big a hurdle. That requirement was instituted in the 1970s.

Conservative estimates place the cost at $1.5 million. Laffitte said that "unreasonable high price tag" was unconstitutional and agreed with plaintiff Jose Emilio Pérez Guzmán that it violated his right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and equal opportunity.

Enrique Vázquez Quintana, the Civil Action Party's president, hailed the decision, adding that the three parties have "held the system hostage" by blocking more open participation. The fistful of party activists met immediately to plot out a way to garner the 106,000 signatures needed to get on the November 2004 ballot.

"We're looking for those unhappy with the three parties, for those angry at what happened under Rosselló and at what hasn't happened under Sila to give us their vote," said Vázquez Quintana, Rosselló's former health secretary. He was kicked out of the Cabinet after refusing to approve a questionable contract for a consultant who later turned out to be corrupt.

"We want to get rid of career politicians because that just breeds corruption," he said.

Pérez Guzmán went to federal court after local courts upheld the election law without even holding hearings. Elections officials said it was likely they would appeal last week's ruling.

But meanwhile, the island's many political gurus chew on what this ruling actually could mean. And thoughts about the Ralph Nader spoiler scenario in the U.S. presidential election in 2000 have jolted a few people to think ahead.

The growing number of non-affiliated voters now -- about 400,000 -- and the anger among swing voters likely will not be enough for the CAP to win even one elected position. But discontent could draw enough votes from Calderón, for example, to secure a Rosselló win.

Or it could split the votes from people of all ideological stripes who have consistently put a pro-independence candidate in both chambers of the Legislature to keep an eye on those with true power.

"What will happen is what happens in all bipartisan systems, that the parties tend to pay more attention to the issues that the minor parties raise, like the environment, or others," said José Garriga Picó, a pro-statehood political science professor who doubts the CAP will get enough signatures.

For pro-independence political analyst Noel Colón Martínez, whether the Civil Action Party will succeed depends on its platform and if it addresses issues that civic groups deem important.

"In recent elections, we've seen an independent environmental candidate for the Senate get 72,000 votes," Colón Martínez said. "I think the time is ripe to create more groups. Modern democracies don't have two parties, but more, and it's about forging alliances to achieve certain goals."

But longtime observers say that as long as the two main parties stay strong and fairly even, little will change when about 85 percent of the island's 2.2 million registered voters hit the polls.

"Voters are wise," said Juan R. Melecio, former president of the State Elections Commission. "They may vote for a candidate outside of their party or do some mixed voting, but they're loath to throw away their vote. They tend to give their vote to someone who really has a chance of winning."

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