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Political Business As Usual

by Lance Oliver

December 8, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Elections officials in Puerto Rico are lamenting the decline in voter participation. About 81 percent of registered voters turned out for November’s general election, still a healthy rate of participation by U.S. standards, but a small and steady drop from previous general elections.

When looking for explanations, one comes easily to mind. Voters are turned off by the sheer predictability of the political process.

How much difference does it make if the Popular Democratic Party or the New Progressive Party is in charge? To the members of the full-time political class, it makes a lot of difference, because they use their hold on power to gain jobs, influence or government contracts.

That’s one reason so many people are so passionately active in politics. When nearly a third of the work force is employed in the public sector (and some mayors have been known to have nearly two dozen relatives on the municipal payroll), a lot of people depend on the outcome of the political process for their livelihoods.

The other voters, the ones who aren’t likely to benefit directly from an election outcome, have more reason to believe there’s not a lot of difference between life under a red popular regime or blue penepe rule.

Governor-elect Sila Calderón has promised a greater effort to nurture consensus, a dampening of the harshness that has infiltrated the executive branch under Pedro Rosselló. Can she be trusted to follow through?

Remember that Rosselló made similar promises in 1992, when he first ran for governor. He promised to eliminate "wasteful" spending on publicity, yet he has used advertising more aggressively than his predecessors, taking public money and using it to try to convince the public that he is doing a good job.

His slogan in 1992 was "The people speak and I obey." Then he developed an administration that was notable for its lack of attention to public opinion. That may be a positive or a negative, depending on your preferred method of governance, but it certainly wasn’t a promise fulfilled.

Rosselló also promised that he would move away from the fierce partisanship that makes politics such a stalemate on the island. But what issue has dominated the news in these final days of his administration? His appointment of two defeated senators to judicial positions.

The NPP used its lame-duck legislative muscle to approve the nominations by Rosselló of Luisa Lebrón and Luis Felipe Navas, both senators defeated in the general election who will now be assured of 12 more years on the public payroll.

Even more controversial was Rosselló’s nomination of Nydia Rodríguez as minor’s advocate. Earlier this year, she was fined $10,000 by the Government Ethics Office.

Considering that Rosselló sent well over 100 nominations to various boards, judicial and prosecutorial posts to the Legislature in a special session, it’s hard to see his actions as anything but packing the government with more NPP partisans before his party loses power in January. That’s precisely the sort of partisanship he promised to end.

Just to show it’s not all one-sided, the PDP and the Puerto Rican Independence Party made no attempt to consider the nominations in a thoughtful and individual fashion. They just declared it an impossible task to consider so many and voted against them.

Then there was another very unsurprising announcement when the PDP leadership suggested that it would increase legislators’ budgets once the party takes power in 2001. The legislators, already more highly paid than their counterparts in the states, need more than the current $10,000 to $15,000 per month to run their offices and hire help.

None of this would surprise many of the voters who perhaps had difficulty deciding between the two major parties on election day. Indeed, the elections are becoming a mechanism for limiting the number of years one party can milk the government before it goes to far and must be replaced by the other.

Next year, the NPP majority in the Legislature will be replaced by the PDP majority, many NPP mayors will turn over city halls to PDP mayors, and Sila Calderón will move into La Fortaleza. Across the island, blue-blooded government employees will be replaced with those who bleed red. Projects will be stopped only because the other side started them. The long-term progress of the island will move in its zig-zag course under changing leadership.

In four years, we’ll vote again. Don’t be surprised if a lot of people shrug instead.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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