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June 11, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Democracy by Party Rule

Today, Puerto Rico is vexed by elected officials more attentive to partisan priorities than to the needs of the people.

The New Progressive Party (NPP) continues to take shrapnel from the verbal grenades detonated by its own members. In the meantime, the legislative work of the people who elected them as a Senate majority is pushed to the background.

The leader of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, seems indecisive and torn by conflicting partisan priorities. Many of his cabinet choices are stalled in the legislature or have been rejected. His lack of leadership has left the commonwealth government without a budget and, in the opinion of many, without a plan.

The NPP’s principal power base, the Puerto Rico Senate, has become a sophomoric "food fight," inspired by Pedro Rosselló’s unrelenting quest of the Senate Presidency at the expense of the incumbent, Kenneth McClintock, who, so far, narrowly holds the support of enough Senators from all parties to stay in the office, in spite of gargantuan pressure being put on his supporters by NPP leadership.

This conflict points-up the enormous hold that the Puerto Rican political party establishments have on the island’s democratic process. In a recent NPP conference, some half of its two thousand voting members decided to back Rosselló’s designs over the expressed will of an electorate that did not support his bid for Governor. When the election left him without a political platform, the NPP would have none of it. It promptly forced Victor Loubriel, the elected Senator for Arecibo, to resign and "appointed" Rosselló to fill his seat. Now the voters of Arecibo have as their representative in the Senate a man that they did not elect and a candidate for Governor that the people rejected.

To enforce their will, NPP party leaders seem willing to banish anyone who dares chart an even slightly independent course from party policies.

In a move Tuesday, it expelled from its ranks the maverick Senator Jorge de Castro Font for not toeing the party line in the Rosselló-McClintock struggle. In 2002, as a PDP member of the House of Representatives, De Castro Font opposed the policies of then PDP Governor Sila Calderón. Subsequently he left the populares, first to become an independent and then to switch to the NPP, declaring his commitment to the statehood cause. A hero of the NPP at that time, he has now become a goat.

In spite of the rebuff, De Castro Font says that he will appeal the expulsion, remain loyal to McClintock and retain his powerful position as Chairman of both the Senate Rules & Calendar and Judicial committees.

In order to hold onto his fragile lead, McClintock is ousting from their Committee Chairs those NPP Senators who are backing Rosselló and replacing them with loyalists. This wholesale replacement of committee leadership is creating backlogs in legislation and confusion among members and staffers. The work of the people holds secondary importance to political favoritism.

Nor can the PDP boast that its leadership is doing much better. Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, rather than displaying statesmanship and a compromising spirit to the majority opposition in the House and Senate, has become sullen and quarrelsome. Any hope of comity between the two branches evaporated in April when he vetoed a bill to authorize holding a referendum on the island’s political status after publicly promising to sign it. In a remarkable demonstration of partisan duplicity, he called the bill "deceptive," even though his close associates in the legislature were instrumental in its drafting and even though several of his suggested changes were accommodated before the bill was passed.

And then, last week, the Governor announced that he would use decree powers to fund projects that the legislature had not authorized. Although dictatorial-sounding pronouncements are not new to occupants of La Fortaleza, many observers thought that his five-minute radio and television speech to the island took the prize for arrogance.

Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, generally considered a sophisticated and experienced politician, is acting so irrationally that it suggests that he is confused by conflicting voices in the PDP hierarchy. It is worth mentioning that he became his party’s candidate for Governor in 2004 by the will of the PDP graybeards in convention. He was a third choice after Jose Alfredo Hernandez Mayoral was first appointed as candidate and then withdrew and later after Sen. Roberto Prats turned down the offer, preferring to run for Resident Commissioner. Acevedo Vilá owes his party much and it is possible that he is now dancing to its tune and not to the greater good of the Puerto Rican people.

With Puerto Rico’s severe crime problem, staggering public debt, high unemployment, stagnate economy and tumbling credit rating, one would think that concern for the island’s inhabitants would trump partisan advantage. The opposite is true. These problems have simply provided fuel for the fire of political rhetoric. In the face of these problems, invective has replaced solutions.

In recent polls, Herald readers indicate that the Governor should take the lead in moving the divided government into a shared government. They also express hope that the situation of opposing parties holding power in the co-equal branches of government could be a good thing, a hopeful sign for the potential of a maturation process in Puerto Rican politics. In the face of the present deadlock, they, and the majority of island residents, must be saddened by today’s missed opportunities.

On Wednesday, in a lead editorial in El Nuevo Dia, authored by the publication’s Board Chairman Antonio Luis Ferré and Director Luis A. Ferré Rangel, the island’s leading newspaper excoriated the political class now ruling the island. "The country is paralyzed," the article begins. "A group of political leaders, blinded by partisan and personal ambition, are writing out one of the saddest pages in the history of Puerto Rico." Referring to the imbroglio in the Senate and the lack of leadership displayed by Governor Acevedo Vilá, the opinion piece indicts both the legislative and executive branches of the commonwealth government, accusing them of ignoring the mandate of the electorate. "It is time for action," the article concluded. "It is time for those who were elected to direct our destinies to begin to work. If not, it will be too late for (Puerto Rico).

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