Puerto Rico governance clashes likely with changes in party control

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Major changes to Puerto Rico governance in the next two months are certain and observers say these are likely to lead to greater clashes and instability in the near future.

The party composition of the two chambers of the Puerto Rico legislature is changing dramatically. The Popular Democratic Party has gained a plurality of the Puerto Rico Senate, taking control from the New Progressive Party, which supports statehood. The former supports the current status. Both have advocated fighting the Oversight Board’s policies.

Javier Colon Morera
University of Puerto Rico Professor Javier Colon Morera said if President Trump names new conservative members to the board, it would likely lead to further polarization in Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rico House will likely switch from an NPP majority to a PDP majority, albeit the latter only by a single vote. The island is still counting votes and one PDP candidate is up by 66 votes on an NPP candidate and another PDP candidate has a 114-vote advantage over an NPP candidate. If the newly counted votes raise one or both the NPP candidates above the PDP candidates, the PDP would have a plurality rather than a majority of the seats.

Pedro Pierluisi will replace Wanda Vázquez Garced as governor. They are both members of the NPP. Pierluisi will have to deal with legislative bodies dominated by members of the opposite party.

The new local government will be sworn in in early January.

The Puerto Rico Oversight Board will have at least four new members. Puerto Rico observer John Mudd said he believes all seven members will be new. Mudd and University of Puerto Rico Professor José Garriga Pico said he thought the new board is likely to be more creditor-friendly.

“If President Trump oversees naming new conservative members to the board the conditions for further polarization are probable,” said University of Puerto Rico Professor Javier Colon Morera. “This is a very open question at this time. If [President-elect Joe] Biden controls the process there are other options possible.”

According to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act the U.S. House Speaker and Senate President each provide two lists each containing three possible nominees to the president. The U.S. House Minority Leader and Senate Minority Leader each present lists of three possible nominees to the president. From these lists the president normally selects six people to serve. The president also selects one person.

Trump has already appointed Justin Peterson and Republican leaders control the lists for three other board members.

Several sources say the selection process will likely be completed in the next few weeks while Trump is still president.

Puerto Rico’s electorate gave the Puerto Rico Independence Party candidate for governor 13.7%, the party’s best showing since 1956. The socially liberal Citizen’s Victory Movement candidate won 14.2%.

“The emergence of new parties and political movements, the strengthening of the PRIP, the weakening of traditional bipartisanship, and the reduction in voter turnout are signs of deep dissatisfaction with the established order,” said Center for a New Economy Policy Director Sergio Marxuach. There were 38.6% fewer voters in the 2020 Puerto Rico election compared to the 2000 election. By comparison, Puerto Rico’s population declined 16% in the same period.

Whoever is elected leader of the Puerto Rico House and Senate “is going to be in a very unstable environment with lots of infighting, and possibly, treason and change,” Garriga Pico said. “The relation with a very weak governor elected by a [33]% plurality should be very tense with constant skirmishes. I think very little will be done. We’ll be lucky if a budget is approved by June 30.

“This will end up making the leadership that the [Oversight Board] may provide more important and decisive,” Garriga Pico continued.

Pierluisi may turn to the board for fiscal leadership, Garriga Pico said. But this might strengthen the growing anti-American movement in the PRIP, PDP, and MVC and in the labor unions and other places. They are talking about how they may topple Pierluisi in 2021.

“Buckle up! It’s going to be a rough flight,” Garriga Pico said.

“There is a probability many municipalities will face tough political decisions as they will be unable in the near future to pay their employees and other expenses and face mounting deficits,” Colon Morera said. “In the end a new wave of migration to the United States by Puerto Ricans escaping these harsh economic conditions could force the U.S. to go back to the drawing board and reassess the PROMESA congressional policy.

“It is not in the interest of creditors to have an empty Puerto Rico with few prospects of economic growth,” Colon Morera said. “What shape and form … this new approach [will take] is dependent in part on who governs the United States in the next four years, specifically the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.”

“Things are fluid and interesting in Puerto Rico,” Colon Morera continued. “Maybe too much so.”

The Puerto Rico Senate currently has 21 members of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, seven from the pro-current status Popular Democratic Party, one from the Puerto Rico Independence Party, and one unaligned member. The new senate will have 13 members from the PDP, nine from the NPP, two from the Citizen’s Victory Movement, one from the PRIP, one from the socially conservative Project Dignity, and one nonaligned.

The Senate will have 27 members but due to an oddity of the island’s constitution had 30 members in the current term.

The new Puerto Rico House of Representatives will have 26 members from the PDP, 21 from the NPP, and five more for the CVM, PRIP, and PD parties. This compares to the current House where 34 are members of the NPP, 16 are members of the PDP, one is from the PRIP, and one is unaligned.

The House has 51 members.

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