Susanne Ramirez de Arellano: Puerto Rican Voters to Choose the Lesser Evil

After a bruising run-up to the elections, complete with political bickering and the demonization of the only two real contenders, Puerto Rican voters will go to the polls Tuesday to unravel a dilemma: which of the candidates is the lesser of perceived evils?

The political landscape in Puerto Rico has changed with three new political parties entering the fray -- Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico; Party of the Working People and the Sovereignty Union Movement.

But the race really comes down to this: NPP governor Luis Fortuño vs. PDP Alejandro García Padilla.

Just a day before the general election, the race seems too close to call. According to a recent poll in San Juan’s El Nuevo Día, Fortuño leads by 45 percent to García Padilla's 43 percent, with a three-point margin of error.

This was not the case seven months ago. Then, in a poll published by the same newspaper, voters overwhelmingly chose García Padilla to Fortuño, 47 percent to 25 percent, a 22 point lead.

This substantial advantage was not a vote for García Padilla or his party. It was a vote against the Fortuño administration and a widely unpopular strategy that relied on - a la Ronald Reagan - deep cuts to government bureaucracy, radical tax reductions, a direct challenge to unionism and an attempt to control government growth – all in a difficult economic climate.

The albatross around Fortuño’s neck has been the political adversaries within his own party, such as Senate president Thomas Rivera Schatz, locally known as the White Shark, and a failure to communicate his vision.

García Padilla failed to take the reins and become the voice of the frustrated electorate. He has been unable to utilize the simple phrase with which Reagan secured the White House: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Instead, García Padilla has run an angry, personal attack campaign against Fortuño, with little substance on the issues. This seems to have backfired and could cost him the election.

“García Padilla has been unable to articulate his vision correctly. He has spent too much time focusing on Fortuño, instead of on himself and his strengths,” said Juan Carlos Pedreira, director of Carib News, a twitter platform with a following of almost 20,000.

Fortuño, on the other hand, campaigned on his record and took his message on the road, all of a sudden looking and sounding like a man of the people, banking on personal attachment and hope for the future.  In Puerto Rico, this wins votes.

“As of today, I see Fortuño winning with a margin of 6 to 8 percent,” said Pedreira. “Fortuño has been lucky that he is running a re-election campaign with a fragile opponent who really has no track record.”

In addition, the NPP harnessed the gubernatorial vote to a plebiscite on the island’s status, a non-binding referendum on whether the island should remain a U.S. commonwealth or seek full statehood.

This ensures that the staunchly pro-statehood party base, a zealous group known as “el corazón del rollo,” will come out in force to vote.

What neither candidate has made clear is what steps they will take to deal with the stark reality greeting them at La Fortaleza: a massive public debt and lack of income that threaten to prolong economic instability and looming cuts Congress is set to apply to federal spending.

There is a sense that, in the end, nothing will change.

“I think Fortuño will win, although he is not one of mine”, said Sorangely Rios, a bank officer in Puerto Rico. “I see the amount of people that follow him, and I know it is a given. Nothing will really change.”

Still, the advent of the new parties to some is a ray of hope.

“Puerto Rico will live the premiere or the end of a novella on Nov. 6th. It will see a change to the story of either Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, so that the next day, we see the same,” said Yadira Tanco, a local television producer.

“I will give the opportunity to the minority, I will not change the world, but I will bet that in 2016, that minority will change, and reach a consolation of the middle class.”

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