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Business Latin America

Close Gubernatorial Vote

15 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Economist Intelligence Unit Ltd. All rights reserved.

Business Latin America

Number 25

The poll results are unclear and polarisation will remain a feature of commonwealth politics

Puerto Rico’s gubernatorial election of November 2nd is still without a definitive outcome. Because the preliminary tally put the two top candidates in a dead heat, the commonwealth’s State Electoral Commission (CEE) on November 8th began re-examining the counts submitted by the individual electoral districts. This could be followed by a recount of all the 1.97m votes cast. The process could drag on for many weeks, fuelling uncertainty and political animosity, while depriving the island of a smooth transition ahead of inauguration day, January 2nd. And if the provisional winner is confirmed, Puerto Rico could wind up with a hopelessly divided, and ineffective, incoming government.

Puerto Rico’s three dominant political parties all fielded candidates, but with more than 98% of electoral districts having reported the contender of the pro-commonwealth Partido Popular Democratico (PPD), Anibal Acevedo Vila, and that of the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), Pedro Rossello, were far ahead in the count. Mr Acevedo Vila received 48.38% of the popular vote, while Mr Rossello, a former two-term governor (1993-2000), got 48.18%.

The third-party candidate, Ruben Barrios, belongs to the left-leaning Partido Independentista Puertoriqueno (PIP). He garnered just 2.67% of the total vote, a result that signals the continuation of a progressive decline of the pro-independence party.

As a first step towards a possible full recount, the CEE officials are reviewing the electoral districts’ summaries of tallies from individual polling places. They must also count some 30,000 handwritten ballots that were not tallied on election day. If, at the end of this process, the difference between the first- and second-placed candidates is found to be less than 0.5%, a complete recount, ballot by ballot, will take place.

The PPD candidate apparently was able to take advantage of the issue of corruption, which featured large in the televised debates between the three gubernatorial candidates. More than 30 of Mr Rossello’s former government officials or acquaintances are either in jail or awaiting trial on corruption charges.

During his campaign, Mr Acevedo Vila also sought to distance himself from the current administration of Sila Maria Calderon, also of the PPD. Governor Calderon has presided over a period of moribund economic performance, high unemployment and failure to make advances in addressing issues of crucial importance to the island’s economy. These include the phasing out in 2005 of Section 30A of the US Tax Code, under which US manufacturing firms in Puerto Rico enjoy tax benefits.

Mr Acevedo Vila instead emphasised his record as resident commissioner in Washington, highlighting successes such as increased funding for education and health from the US.

Mr Rossello, for his part, campaigned on the basis of his personal charisma and the experience garnered during his previous two terms.

Definite gridlock

Should Mr Acevedo Vila prevail in the recount and become the next governor, he will face a seriously fractured government. Although he will control the executive branch, PNP lawmakers will control Puerto Rico’s next Congress.

Mr Acevedo Vila has promised to seek national unity via persuasion and dialogue, but this could prove difficult, particularly given the close election results. Such conditions could lead to legislative gridlock, making the next government largely ineffective. Indeed, through its law-making and budgetary powers, and its oversight investigatory authority, the legislature could prevent Mr Acevedo Vila from exercising the strong power that Puerto Rican governors have traditionally had.

If, on the other hand, Mr Rossello emerges as the winner following a recount, he will not face the same kind of legislative opposition.

In any case, polarisation will remain a feature of Puerto Rican politics, where citizens are fairly evenly divided in their loyalties to the PNP or to the PPD, and where the two main parties have tended to alternate in office. But the challenges facing Puerto Rico at present will make such polarisation particularly damaging.

Increased borrowing by the Calderon government to cover its budget deficit has focused attention on the need for fiscal reform. Given the phasing out in 2005 of Section 30A of the US Tax Code, the next governor will also have to define a new industrial development policy during its period in office.

Other issues that the incoming administration will have to address are crime and economic underperformance. Despite the modest economic improvement in fiscal year 2003/04 (July-June), when growth reached an estimated 2.7%, the unemployment rate remains high, at more than 11%.

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