Island's political status the key issue in Puerto Rico election

Register now

Analysts say that Puerto Rico’s upcoming gubernatorial election may ultimately impact the local economy.

On Aug. 9 island voters will go to the polls in a primary election to select among two candidates from the New Progressive Party and three candidates from the Popular Democratic Party.

Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia
Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia is likely to be one of the two major party candidates in November's gubernatorial election, observers say.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez and former non-voting representative of Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress Pedro Pierluisi are vying for the NPP nod. Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and Isabella Mayor Charlie Delgado are seeking the PDP nomination.

The NPP and PDP differ primarily on the issue of the island’s political status. The NPP supports Puerto Rico becoming a state. PDP-members either support the island’s “commonwealth” status without oversight by the Oversight Board or some modification of the commonwealth status without statehood or independence.

While there is a good deal of overlap between the parties on other issues, the NPP tends to be more conservative than the PDP.

Advantage Business Consulting President Vicente Feliciano said, “Either Pierluisi or Vázquez would have an advantage over Bhatia because the NPP is a larger party than the PDP. Thus, the election is for the NPP candidate to lose, which of course has occurred in the past. In general, we would expect the relationship with the [Oversight] Board to be better than under [former Governor Ricardo] Rosselló, with Pierluisi the more business-friendly candidate.”

Pierluisi was sworn in as governor following Rosselló’s 2019 resignation in the wake of massive street protests but he was removed from office five days later when the Commonwealth’s Supreme Court ruled that his swearing-in violated Puerto Rico’s constitution.

In a poll conducted by the El Nuevo Día news web site in late February, Bhatia was found to be the favorite in the PDP and Vázquez and Pierluisi to be running closely for the NPP nomination.

The poll also found that Vázquez and Pierluisi would beat Bhatia in a general election by 15 to 20 percentage points.

However, since then the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to the island and Vázquez has introduced stringent measures to reduce its spread, thereby stressing the economy. This may have changed voters' inclination to vote for the NPP, which currently holds both legislative houses as well as the governorship.

Puerto Rico University sociology professor Emilio Pantojas García said there will likely be a light turnout in the general election. Usually this would work to the benefit of the NPP. However, “people are very upset with the NPP performance in this third crisis [after Hurricane Maria and earthquakes in the southwest]. It is the NPP voters whom are likely to be a no show.”

Thus this time a low turnout may support the election of Bhatia, who is likely the PDP’s candidate, Pantojas García said. “Who wins the governorship is anyone’s guess.”

Further complicating matters is that Puerto Rico Independence Party and Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizen’s Victory Movement) candidates will likely draw off some support in the gubernatorial contest. They may also gain some seats in the legislature, he said.

Pierluisi served as a consultant for the Oversight Board for several months. Some observers said that his election would lead the local government to closely follow the board’s directions.

The general election is Nov. 3.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.