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The Character Factor And Puerto Rico’s 2004 General Elections


January 13, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The decisive element in Puerto Rico’s 2004 general elections was something that is known in the political realm as "the character factor." The image campaigns, slogans, jingles, rallies, noise, and millions of dollars spent on attempting to cement the nonstick candidates in our minds, and convince voters that one was better or worse than the other, didn’t work–or at least they didn’t produce the desired results.

Voters considered the staunch heart of each party (el corazón del rollo) did what was expected, they made a single "X" below their party’s insignia. Voters who weren’t committed to any party, or were more faithful to their conscience than to any particular political group, were moved to vote with an uneasy thought: which candidate had the character to lead and govern Puerto Rico. And they were the voters who decided the gubernatorial election.

The character factor is a common element in U.S. mainland politics, although relatively new in Puerto Rico. According to James P. Pfiffner, professor of public policy at George Mason University, this factor is primarily manifested in presidential politics, usually involves sex and lies, and is used to attack a political opponent. Even though there is no consensus over what makes a good political character, it is possible to come close to what it means.

Character can be defined as a group of qualities or circumstances that differentiates a person from others, whether by his or her behavior or personality. In politics, it is commonly expected a leader’s character will have such qualities as trustworthiness, sincerity, and integrity, as well as reliability, loyalty, responsibility, and also will possess compassion, self-restraint, consistency, and prudence. To this we should add the public’s expectation that he or she can exercise the power to lead the country forward.

These are considered important qualities because leaders must make difficult decisions that depend on their internal strengths and weaknesses, as well as on their principles and values. On the other hand, those decisions also will be determined by the effectiveness of a leader’s advisers and that person’s willingness to heed the advice of those capable of helping him or her when necessary.

For many voters, the character of the candidates is as important as their intelligence, organizational skills, image, presence, and effectiveness in communicating, since no one can predict the situations they will confront once in office. Campaign issues and promises can become less important after an election, as occurred in the U.S. after 9/11, an event that totally changed the political scenario.

In such cases, the leader’s character will continue to be the core of his or her administration.

A political strategist with extensive knowledge of group behavior manifested in Puerto Rico would have anticipated character would decide the 2004 gubernatorial elections. A scholar of Puerto Rican culture and society able to apply his or her knowledge to any field–in this case the political arena–would have been able to advise gubernatorial candidates on the elements of character the electorate was hoping to see. However, this wasn’t the case.

Since the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) and the New Progressive Party (NPP) began alternating their turn at power, gubernatorial candidates have placed increasing trust on publicists to create their images and disseminate their messages. Publicists, in turn, see candidates as products and market them as such based on presence and positioning. However, contrary to other products, politicians speak and act, and their words and actions can be–and often are–determining factors.

Un Puerto Rico de primera (A first-class Puerto Rico), Al rescate de la patria (To the country’s rescue), and Está bueno ya (Enough is enough) are slogans any of the three candidates could have used and uttered because they hold neither an ideological content nor any personal attributes. This fact left voters to base their choice for governor on the candidate’s character–something that can best be advertised or marketed through what each candidate says and does.

In the case of Pedro Rosselló, the character his words and actions revealed was the main reason for his defeat. Saying simply and flatly that he was unaware of any corruption during his administration, not wanting to discuss it or explain how he would thwart it in the future; dismissing the matter of his pension as simply political persecution; backing the insolent "style" of Tomás Rivera Schatz; and using religion irreverently in his campaign put his character in a precarious position, to say the least.

Puerto Rican Pro Independence Party (PIP) candidate Rubén Berríos marketed himself in this election like a new brand of soap or deodorant. If he had been, he would have caught on because his campaign was a curious one, but his words and actions were improper and decadent. Saying the elections weren’t a plebiscite, except for independentistas, and that PIP voters who "lent" their vote to another candidate would be capable of lending their woman to someone else was political charlatanism, and it tarnished his character.

PDP candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá faced his tests of character in a different manner. He admitted having received a $20,000 check from a donor in atypical circumstances, and ordered the money returned. He clashed with Gov. Sila Calderón over the nomination of Ferdinand Mercado as chief justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, and distanced himself from her practically throughout the entire campaign. These actions by Acevedo Vilá helped him shape a political character, which he needed more than his opponents since it was his first time aspiring to the governor’s office and he was from the administration with which practically everyone was unhappy.

In an election where character was a determining factor, the candidates needed to be seen and heard by the electorate, to clear away any doubts regarding what they could expect from them once they won; thus, it was appalling that in the NPP everyone was outspoken except for Rosselló, who was practically hidden during the final days of the campaign. In contrast, in the final stretch, Acevedo Vilá increased his television and radio appearances.

While Rosselló remained sheltered behind a campaign of mass media and Berríos became entangled in his own discourse, Acevedo Vilá–without even arousing much enthusiasm–became the recipient of peripheral and uncommitted votes. Historically, these are the votes that are decided in the last days of political campaigning and based on the determining issues of each particular election. And it happened again.

The most logical explanation for this is that NPP insiders were aware character was Rosselló’s Achilles heel and, therefore, he had to be steered away from live cameras and microphones and only seen in recorded messages. If this were the case, Rosselló–and anyone else like him, who could unite noncommitted voters and potential crossover voters from the opposing party against him–would be the NPP Achilles heel. Or isn’t it a fact that "everyone but Rosselló" won in the 2004 elections?

A Spanish saying points out that "blame is an orphan," and the same can be said of defeat. Maybe this is why the election results left all parties claiming a troublesome victory: the NPP because it won almost everything; the PDP because it won what’s most important; and the PIP because it had two legislators elected despite its sudden downfall. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the results favored a group of candidates and none of the political parties.

Moreover, all three parties lost the elections. The PDP lost most of the municipalities, control of the Puerto Rico Legislature, and the resident commissioner’s post in Washington, D.C. The NPP lost what it wanted most, the governor’s office, and with it the opportunity to manage the budget and develop its platform. The PIP lost what little it had left, the respect and representation of the Puerto Rican independence movement.

Several things can be pinpointed from the results of the past elections in Puerto Rico, among them what voters rejected: the lack of character of some candidates; the former PDP-dominated Legislature’s insensibility toward and disconnection from the public’s feelings and perceptions; the idleness and lack of seriousness on the part of PIP leaders; and the riveraschatzation of Puerto Rican politics–that is, the insolence and impertinence in the political debate.

Sadly, recent actions and words uttered by defeated candidates prove they didn’t learn their lesson…maybe because, as the old saying goes: Moro viejo, mal cristiano (old habits die hard). In any case, what’s important isn’t what the defeated candidates learned, but what the men and women who won did, because it is their responsibility to decipher the message deposited in the ballot boxes, particularly at a time propitious for the realignment of political forces in Puerto Rico.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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