At the very heart of national constitutional states, which value political participation by the citizens and not just by their elected representatives, there is a tradition of organizing movements aimed at introducing political reforms. Under the supposition that there are no perfect political systems, that public policies often fail even when they have good intentions, and that administrators in office continuously make mistakes of commission and omission, the democratic ethos values the idea of a dynamic activist spirit in the public sphere that is aimed at public reform. On occasions, the political leadership can advance these reforms, and other times they have a grassroots origin.

Today, one of the most urgent reform challenges in Puerto Rico has to do with electoral campaign financing. Currently, financing for the political parties comes from individuals, groups, private corporations and the state (the latter through the State Elections Fund). The challenge is based on the need to eliminate the practice of “political investors,” to eliminate the corruption that comes with private contributions which are made for the purpose of “buying” favors and compromising public policies. Current laws are lax and political parties in Puerto Rico — as in the United States — continuously invent schemes to get around the laws on campaign contributions with impunity.

It is unfortunate that in 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court decided to eliminate all restrictions on political campaign contributions from the corporate sector in the country. Under the weak rationalization that putting limits on campaign contributions by businesses represented a violation of the right to free expression, the court legalized a lobbying practice based on buying loyalty. Many political observers in the United States have lamented this decision.

One issue on the local Puerto Rican political agenda that is closely tied to the issue of private financing is an interest in eliminating the state elections fund and leaving each political party responsible for collecting private funds. The elimination of this fund obviously favors the parties that best represent corporate interests and hurts any movement that is not inclined to “sell” influence to the business sector. The public debate about this topic includes the possibility of limiting the cost and duration of political campaigns. Another question is the idea of changing to a unicameral legislature or at least reducing the number of legislators, and also limiting the funds available for personal perks and political patronage, the so-called “barrels.”

The third challenge is to create a climate of bipartisanship with the goal of establishing alliances and coalitions to approve laws, make appointments based on merit instead of party loyalty, raise the level of conduct by the political class and begin a serious process of self-determination for Puerto Rico based on consensus. As for alliances and coalitions, it is important to recognize that as power becomes more concentrated, the smaller is the public space for resolving controversies and proposing solutions. History shows, however, that it is not that difficult to build alliances and coalitions, even including sectors that are ideologically radically opposed.

In Puerto Rico, despite high levels of political polarization, there have been effective alliances and coalitions, such as the cases of the Peace for Vieques movement, the Committee Against the Death Penalty, and protests and demonstrations called by various social groups, NGOs and labor unions. These demonstrations are examples of citizen participation that transcend the limits of party preference. It is essential to recognize, however, that the more fundamentalist the parties become in terms of their ideological positions, the more difficult it is to create alliances and coalitions. In general, political agreements require a strong motivation and political maturity, in addition to a democratic culture of respecting differences and ethical principles of transparency, responsibility and accountability.

A fourth challenge has to do with citizens questioning the government in power. The habit of trusting in a leader as an act of faith is not part of the logic of democracy. With the communications media trivialized and committed to the status quo and the existing power structures, civil society faces the extraordinary challenge of organizing effective means of community activism and creating a vigorous public sphere that is not subject to political party blackmail, winning votes through promises, and autocratic atavism.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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