The Era Of Divided Government

by John Marino

December 31, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The era of a divided government in Puerto Rico was officially ushered in this week as the State Elections Commission certified the victory of Popular Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá.

While the PDP controls La Fortaleza, the New Progressive Party has captured the Washington, D.C.-based resident commissioner’s post, a majority of Puerto Rico’s municipal governments and firm control of the local House and Senate. It is the first time in island history since Puerto Ricans have elected their own governor that the governor and resident commissioner are from different parities.

The divided government is, perhaps, a fitting end to one of the dirtiest political campaigns in island history, giving every indication that the mudslinging will continue unabated.

While there has been some expectation that the situation would force politicians to work more in consensus for the greater good of Puerto Rico, this week’s events appear to diminish such hopes.

Sure Acevedo Vilá and NPP resident commissioner-elect Luis Fortuño smiled and shook hands Tuesday, after being certified winners by the SEC, vowing to work together for the good of Puerto Rico. But the machinery of their respective political parties was already on the attack, engendering a political environment every bit as charged as at the height of an election campaign.

NPP gubernatorial candidate Pedro Rosselló declined to continue the NPP legal battle by nixing an attempt for a U.S. Supreme Court hearing, but said he did so to relieve the anxiety of the Puerto Rican people, maintaining that there were irregularities in the acceptance of the pivazo votes, several thousand cast by island prisoners and the SEC’s handling of absentee ballots.

He said that Acevedo Vilá had "legally stolen" the election and indicated it was not the time for shared government. He criticized as partisan the actions of SEC chief Aurelio Gracia and the local Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the machinery of the PDP-controlled commonwealth government has continued to lash out at Rosselló, with a Justice Department bribery investigation into press reports concerning NPP maneuvering to try to gain Rosselló a Senate seat. The Calderón administration has already launched investigations into the former two-term governor’s government pension and tax returns. It adds up to an unprecedented use of commonwealth agencies to investigate a political opponent. The probe of the Senate seat issue is especially ludicrous. Such jockeying is commonplace in island politics.

The big winner on Nov. 2, 2004 was Fortuño, who was able to win cleanly while keeping negative campaigning to a minimum. He is probably the most politically secure of the three big players in the new look political scenario, with both Acevedo Vilá and Rosselló open to internal party challenges to keep their leadership posts.

Fortuño, the Republican National Committeeman from Puerto Rico, is unlikely to be challenged in a party primary challenge. Unlike Rosselló and Acevedo Vilá, he will only have to fight one if he chooses to go for La Fortaleza in 2008.

Despite Acevedo Vilá’s electoral victory, many within the PDP still see former governor’s son José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral as the party’s future. Rosselló may have done much to energize the party base in November to such a degree that it won sweeping victories in the Legislature and among island town halls, not to mention Fortuño’s election as Puerto Rico’s sole, non-voting representative to the U.S. Congress. But the scorecard still shows him as the big loser on Nov. 2, and pundits are already predicting a Fortuño or a San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, among other possibilities, will arise as the NPP gubernatorial candidate in 2008.

Even if Acevedo Vilá staves off party challenges, he will need support outside PDP lines, most probably from the pro-independence sector, in order to win reelection. He will have to be much more aggressive on the status issue than the Calderón administration of which he was a key player had been in order to enjoy such support. At the same time, too overt overtures to independentistas may alienate conservative wings of the PDP that could also prove decisive.

Rosselló, meanwhile, is still a formidable force within the NPP who stands a solid chance of prevailing against any challengers. But if there is one lesson of this campaign for the statehood party, it’s that it too has to reach out to non-affiliated voters for victory in general elections. The former governor enjoyed such support during his first two runs, but this time, his campaign almost thumbed its nose at undecided voters. More than Pedro Rosselló, the figure NPP Electoral Commissioner Thomas Rivera Schatz, a political pit-bull, came to dominate the public image of the former governor’s campaign. And in the NPP’s refusal to sign Acevedo Vilá’s certification papers, the former governor gives no indication of changing course.

Both Acevedo Vilá, with the keys to the commonwealth government, and Rosselló, the leader of the NPP-dominated Legislature and a powerful influence over most island mayors and Puerto Rico’s sole Congressional representative, will have ample political power. Indeed, Rosselló’s power will be such that it will be like having two governors. Their battle over the next four years will be an unprecedented chapter in island politics, in which each will be judged on not only what he accomplishes, but also how he does so.

Safely ensconced in Washington, D.C., with just the federal political establishment to deal with, Fortuño will have the best seat in the house.

John Marino, Managing 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

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