Continuing our series of election reports, the following post-election report on the 2012 Puerto Rican elections is provided by Juhem Navarro-Rivera, a Research Associate at the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, DC.
Ever since the United States Navy landed in Puerto Rico in 1898 the internal politics of the island have been defined by what different factions want as the final solution to the island’s political status: autonomy, independence, or statehood. These three different positions have come to overshadow all other political and parochial concerns for over one hundred years. Since 1952, the autonomist option under the name of Estado Libre Asociado, which literally translates as “Free Associated State” but is known as Commonwealth in English, has been the status quo. Puerto Rican voters do not choose a political party based on tax policy or social issues but first on which status preference they support. The Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), one of the two major parties in Puerto Rico, supports the Commonwealth solution while the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), the other, supports statehood. Two other parties also support status options: the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) supports Puerto Rican independence, and the Movimiento Unión Soberana (MUS) supports an “enhanced Commonwealth” where sovereignty rests in the hands of the Puerto Rican people.
On Tuesday, November 6 voters in Puerto Rico narrowly voted out incumbent pro-statehood Governor Luis Fortuño of the Partido Nuevo Progresista in his reelection bid in favor of state Senator Alejandro García Padilla of the pro-Commonwealth Partido Popular Democrático. The margin of difference between the two candidates was less than one percent, the second-closest election since these two parties began competing against each other in 1968. At the time of this writing, the PPD is poised to win majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
Plagued by high crime, including a record number of murders in 2011, a 13.6% unemployment rate, and the unpopular firing of 30,000 public workers, Gov. Fortuño faced significant challenges in his bid for a second term. Five candidates in addition to Fortuño were seeking the governor’s position, though as the results show, only two had a realistic shot at winning.
Yet, despite the victory for PPD candidates at the polls, Puerto Ricans also voted on a nonbinding plebiscite to solve the political status of Puerto Rico in which a majority rejected the Commonwealth, voting to make Puerto Rico the 51st state of the Union. The plebiscite consisted of two questions, the first one asked voters if they approved or not of the current political status, the second question asked voters to choose between three status options: independence, statehood, and an “enhanced commonwealth” in which the sovereignty of the island will belong to the people of Puerto Rico rather than to the U.S. Congress. As of this writing, the voters did not approve of the current Commowealth status 54% vs. 46%, while those who rejected the current status have voted overwhelmingly in favor of the statehood option (61%) while an “enhanced Commonwealth” received 33% of the vote, and 6% voted for independence.
Further complicating matters is that Fortuño’s running mate, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi defeated PPD’s Roberto Cox Alomar. The victory of the statehood option in the status plebiscite and the defeat of the party that supports it means that Pierluisi will clash with governor-elect García Padilla, a Commonwealth supporter.
The 2012 plebiscite marks the 4th time since the 1952 Constitution was ratified that Puerto Ricans have voted on the political status of the island. A plebiscite in 1967 reaffirmed the support for the Commonwealth. This was also the last plebiscite endorsed by the U.S. Congress, which remains Puerto Rico’s ruling body, able to overrule any law passed by the Puerto Rican government. As this analysis of the Federal legislation on Puerto Rico’s status in Congress since 1952 by University of Connecticut’s Robert Venator and Yazmin García shows, while Congress was more active in the 1990’s introducing legislation to solve Puerto Rico’s political status; none of the plebiscites introduced since 1967 (1993 and 1998) have been endorsed by Congress, including the one that was approved on Tuesday. The lack of Congressional backing for the plebiscite suggests that Congress will not act on the results of the plebiscite as they did on the previous ones. Also, the fact that 46% of voters supported the status quo and that statehood won only among those favoring a change means that statehood still does not have even a majority support, also reducing the chances that Congress will take any action.