Life After Mónica
With less than 90 days before the November general elections, there is another “gold medal” at stake for Puerto Rico: Who will win the gubernatorial race for La Fortaleza? However, the lackluster campaign is entering into an interesting stage as the debates between the gubernatorial candidates are set to begin in September.
It is worth noting that some of the candidates’ proposals—such as the healthcare reform proposed by David Bernier from the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) or the Tennessee Plan for statehood proposed by Ricardo Rosselló from the New Progressive Party (NPP)—seem to ignore the reality of a federal fiscal-control board and its power to decide what may or may not be done in Puerto Rico, based on the financial costs involved.
Both Bernier and Rosselló have expressed interest in working in harmony with the fiscal control board, known officially as the “territorial control board,” and they are working on their respective proposals to be discussed with board members once the seven members are appointed.
Although social networks were used in the past two election campaigns with some intensity due to their effectiveness and low cost, this time around, social networks have become even more important campaign platforms for candidates to promote their agendas and announce their political events.
Results of most independent polls that show electoral trends have not been published, but at the party level, internal surveys are conducted to detect trends and learn more about the issues that capture voters’ concerns. These internal trends are also not released to the public.
One issue that is handled discreetly but is not lacking in electoral relevance is the parties’ and their candidates’ relationship with the religious sector, mainly with evangelicals. The Catholic Church, which still has a strong presence in Puerto Rican society, has been keeping a low profile on the issues, but the church has always taken a very public stance on certain issues such as abortion and divorce.
Past electoral campaigns have seen the late Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez voice his opinions against NPP gubernatorial candidates Carlos Romero Barceló and Pedro Rosselló.
Still, evangelical groups are organized and leading an active campaign by identifying candidates who, according to them, do not represent traditional family values as these more liberal candidates support same-sex marriages and gender-education classes in public schools.
On the campaign trail
So far, the gubernatorial candidates, mainly the PDP’s Bernier and the NPP’s Rosselló, have been presenting and discussing their proposals to promote economic development and address energy issues, but they have also provided general ideas on other issues such as health, education and working with the fiscal control board.
Rosselló insists on keeping the political relations between the U.S. and Puerto Rico among the top issues on his agenda, while Bernier insists on staying as far away from the issue as possible, arguing that the important thing right now is addressing the government’s financial crisis through proposals that promote economic development.
On the campaign trail, Bernier, Rosselló and Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) candidate María de Lourdes Santiago go on planned visits to different spots around the island to check in with their respective organizations at the political and electoral level. Independent candidates Alexandra Lúgaro, Manuel Cidre and Rafael Bernabe of the Working People’s Party (PPT by its Spanish initials) do not engage in this practice.
The outcome of the June 5 primaries gave Bernier and Rosselló, specifically, a golden opportunity to detect weaknesses in their respective political and electoral structures and, therefore, make necessary adjustments before the Nov. 8 elections.
Although the PIP did not participate in the primaries, the independence party used the event to evaluate the voting process and watch its operation to make adjustments to their electoral team, especially after the first-time use of the vote-counting machines in Puerto Rico.
The four registered political parties’ electoral commissioners have praised the benefits of this mechanism in light of the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit staff for the voting centers. At the same time, using the electronic vote-counting machines eases the process by providing assurance and security about how votes are handled.
The NPP and the PDP, which had primaries on June 5, stayed well below their projected participation estimates, leading them to assess their mobilization structures and campaign plans.
“We are at a very interesting, very substantive stage, with a lot of interaction with the people, and we are presenting proposals for all key aspects so people have the chance to see them, analyze them, criticize them, change them…,” said Liza Ortiz, Bernier’s campaign manager.
Ortiz highlighted the good position she said Bernier enjoys at this stage of the campaign and pointed out that the candidate’s contact with voters is more direct, thanks to technology, something that was previously accomplished through televised debates.
Meanwhile, Rosselló’s campaign has discussed—in general terms—issues such as tax matters and the current administration’s credibility problem caused by a lack of transparency in its processes and by defaulting on public debt, in addition to the government’s revenue and expenditure difficulties.
The issue of the political relations between the U.S. and Puerto Rico is mainly championed by the NPP and PIP gubernatorial candidates, while the PDP candidate argues that the election campaign is not the place to discuss this particular matter because what voters expect at this stage is to have proposals addressing the government’s fiscal and economic crisis, as well as education, health and economic development initiatives.
“We are working on a five-year financial plan to discuss it with the federal fiscal-control board so we can work in consensus with them and have the island’s governance affected as little as possible,” Bernier said. He has been gradually presenting his proposals to voters, but no details have been provided regarding major aspects such as education and economic development.
For their part, Rosselló and Santiago have pointed out it is necessary to discuss the political status issue because it is part of the problem that must be resolved to address the island’s fiscal and economic situation.
“The fiscal board’s presence is the result of Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship and not the other way around,” said Santiago, a pro-independence leader, while reiterating her party’s position of not cooperating with the board.
Meanwhile, the NPP’s Rosselló has insisted that the board needs to address the U.S.-Puerto Rico political relationship issue, in addition to providing the local government with mechanisms to foster the island’s economic development. “We will insist that they give us these mechanisms to promote the economic development of Puerto Rico,” he said.
The pro-statehood candidate said he plans to work with the board so measures are implemented by consensus, therefore avoiding unilaterally imposed decisions as much as possible.
Drop in population means fewer voters
A situation that has candidates worried in this election is the population decrease of up to 11% recorded between April 1, 2010 and July 1, 2015 in municipalities such as San Juan (-10.2%), Mayagüez (-10.7%), Ponce (-10.4%), Yauco (-10.4%) and Lares (-11%), among others.
PIP electoral commissioner Roberto Iván Aponte believes the number of people included on the official list of voters—some 2.9 million people—is not accurate because many residents have left the island and remain on those lists. Furthermore, a federal court decision added to the list some 750,000 voters who did not cast their vote in the 2008 and 2012 elections.
“We do not know where those people are, if they died or where they live in Puerto Rico,” Aponte said, while estimating that the actual number of voters is closer to 1.9 million people.
The State Elections Commission (CEE by its Spanish initials) has to make a decision regarding the number of voters assigned per polling center on Election Day. The issue is still unresolved. The CEE is currently purging voter lists and, every month, the number of voters has been decreasing, according to Aponte.
The PIP elections official believes voter turnout will decrease in this year’s election when compared to the 2012 general elections—during which 1.874 million people cast their votes, for a 78% participation rate.
“Based on the low voter turnout for the June 5 primaries, I anticipate a greater decrease in voters in the Nov. 8 elections,” Aponte said. He said the number of voters allocated per polling center should be disclosed by the end of August.
So far, the CEE estimates that on Election Day it will open between 5,250 and 5,300 polling centers, with 560 voters per center, in some 1,501 polling units. The number of voters per center could increase slightly to 600 voters.
The CEE has a budget of $40 million for the upcoming elections—almost half the money allocated in the 2012 general elections.
Money in campaign offers and apathy
One of the main problems faced by the campaign teams and their respective candidates is the marked lack of interest seen among people this year in the political campaigns.
In the June 5 primaries, the PDP and NPP were surprised by the event’s low voter turnout. The PDP managed to bring in some 160,000 voters, while the NPP attracted about 463,000 voters.
The PDP had estimated participation of 200,000 voters because they had no primary for governor. The NPP, meanwhile, was the most surprised with the low turnout, as they expected a gubernatorial primary with nearly 700,000 voters participating.
Aspiring gubernatorial candidate Pedro Pierluisi and his team were counting on a high voter turnout, as they were confident the greater the participation, the greater likelihood he would win. In the end, Rosselló prevailed by a small margin, with 236,524 votes (51.09%) compared with 228,449 votes (48.91%) for Pierluisi, who is the resident commissioner.
Some analysts point to voters’ lack of interest in this election and the lackluster campaign as a result of a lack of funds—which means fewer advertisements in the media and fewer party and candidate events around the island.
Money, or lack thereof, is a key factor that is being addressed by the NPP and PDP, as the general consensus notes that private contributions have decreased significantly due to the current economic crisis and many businesses’ precarious financial situation.
The NPP had to resort to going to court to force the P.R. Treasury Department to disburse money from the electoral fund owed to them by law. The NPP filed the lawsuit in light of their financial commitments during the election campaigns and the slowness with which the government has been disbursing funds that by law correspond to political parties in an election year.
Ortiz, Bernier’s campaign director, declined to give details on the cost of the PDP’s campaign because doing so would be giving important information away. “I cannot give you that information because that’s part of the campaign strategy,” she said to Caribbean Business. She said Arco Advertising agency is in charge of the campaign, but she declined to give further details on the contract, on who is working with the PDP campaign at the agency and on other related matters.
For his part, Elías Sánchez, Rosselló’s campaign manager, estimated the NPP gubernatorial candidate’s campaign expenses at $4 million.
He explained that the years when more than $10 million was spent on campaigning are long gone, as now times are tough and the campaign season is allegedly much shorter.
“This is a three-month campaign, not like before when it was from January to November. Plus, there’s no money,” Sánchez said.
He said the NPP is using the FP! advertising agency for its campaign, whose chief executive is Edwin Miranda.
PIP campaign director Calixto Negrón estimated the cost of his party’s campaign at over $1 million as a result of the new campaign funding formula, whereby the government matches funds raised—up to $250,000—for smaller parties like the PIP and the PPT on a four-to-one basis. Major parties, however, can match up to $5 million on a one-to-one basis.
So far, the candidates for La Fortaleza have submitted their administration’s proposals in areas such as health, energy and public administration. They have also stated how they will deal with the fiscal control board.
Bernier has proposed a plan to reform healthcare services, but some professional sectors have warned him that many of his proposals do not meet federal government requirements.
Rosselló, meanwhile, presented his ideas on working with the fiscal control board and a proposal to address the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (Prepa) critical situation by incorporating some ideas suggested by the utility’s labor union and others currently under consideration by Prepa itself.
In addition, along with his resident commissioner candidate, Jenniffer González, he has promised an aggressive plan to obtain a commitment toward statehood for Puerto Rico from the federal government, which includes sending five “representatives” and two “senators” to lobby for statehood in Congress, as well as with influential entities in U.S. politics.
González, in particular, has been entrusted with seeing that a bill calling for the incorporation of Puerto Rico as a state of the Union is submitted and discussed, assuming she wins in November.
The PDP, meanwhile, has not given importance to this particular NPP proposal as it believes there is no room at the federal government level to discuss statehood amid the local government’s current fiscal crisis that includes public debt of some $70 billion, not counting the public retirement systems’ own fiscal problems.
Independent candidates for La Fortaleza have paid no attention to the issue of the U.S.-Puerto Rico political relations, choosing to focus their campaign efforts on economic, health, education and public administration issues.