It is essential for all citizens to understand the structure of the government of Puerto Rico in the context of the democratic and republican principles that define political ethics in the modern era. Despite the various ideologies that compete in the public arena, there is no political system in the world today that does not identify itself in some way with democracy. For example, when Germany was divided into two states (1945-1991), one allied with the United States and the other with the Soviet Union, one capitalist and the other communist, both identified themselves as republics: the German Federal Republic (Deutsche Bundesrepublik) and the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). And when regimes exist that are not technically republics, such as, among others, Britain and Spain, which are constitutional monarchies, they continue to identify themselves as democratic states whose monarchs are subject to the same laws and customs as any other citizen. The universal use of the term democracy (and its derivatives) to legitimize a political system, whatever its structure and ideology, is testimony to democracy’s global acceptance as the modern form of political life and as the principle criterion for legitimizing political systems in the contemporary world. This is true despite the persistence of atavistic authoritarian regimes in the world.

The fundamental principles of democratic governments originated in the Age of Enlightenment (18th century Europe) and arose in opposition to the authoritarian and hierarchical regimes of feudal times and the great absolute monarchies that preceded the republics in Western history. These principles start from the supposition that human beings, through their natural condition of being free and rational, have the capacity (and the right) for self-realization, both individually and as a community. The recognition of human beings acting freely, beyond the control of the traditional class structures and authoritarian power structures, forced a radical reshaping of state institutions. Democratic logic stated that one can only live in freedom when there are formally constituted state rules (codified in laws) that place limits on the use of political power by authorities over the citizens. The democratic state is therefore also a constitutional state.

Beginning with the French Revolution of 1789, successive processes radically, although slowly, altered the internal structure of the modern state and the Enlightenment concept of this new democratic sensibility, a rule of law dominated by the people and not by traditional structures, became established in Western thinking. This period in the latter decades of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century is known in Western history as the era of revolutions and it was then that the transition began from monarchies to republics and the former royal subjects became citizens who were bona fide members of the nation state.

The democratic theories and practices that arose in this revolutionary period showed great diversity, due to their wide geographic dispersion and their deep complexity. Rich and imaginative variations of form and emphasis, rooted in particular traditions and experiences, were the order of the day. Since the Enlightenment, the contradictions of the new regimes and the constant conflicts over them have been addressed in extensive philosophical and historical works with great critical value. The fundamental principles of the modern democratic state can be summarized, however, as they have been incorporated into various political systems in the world today, including the one in Puerto Rico.

Citizen sovereignty or autonomy. The first of these principles, the sovereignty of the citizen, establishes that the state is a political instrument at the service of the citizens and is based on the popular will as expressed freely through rules and regulations agreed to consensually. This citizen sovereignty or autonomy is inviolable because it is based on inalienable rights and freedoms that the state is obligated to respect and protect. Therefore, the basis of any democratic state is its constitution, which in theory and practice is approved by the people, whether through an explicit constitutional act or through the sum of practices and traditions that the citizens take on. For this reason, the democratic state is synonymous with a constitutional state. The opposite of a constitutional state is an authoritarian or autocratic state, which is the form usually adopted by dictatorships.

In Puerto Rico, despite the hegemony exercised by the United States over political life (a subordinate relationship), the current constitutional state is called the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and its constitutive document is its Constitution, which was written and approved by a Constituent Assembly and later approved by popular vote in 1952. Article 2 of the Constitution contains an extensive Bill of Rights that begins with the recognition of the principle that “the dignity of the human being is inviolable.”

Political participation. Along with the concept of citizen sovereignty, which gives individuals their rights and political freedom, is the crowning democratic ideal of political participation by autonomous citizens in the decisions that affect community life. This activism is continuous and is not limited to voting in elections. If loyalty to the government is seen in autocratic systems as passive submission to the orders of authority, in democracy the citizen has the right and the obligation to be an independent political actor. The citizen has the right to question authority and to be a participant in the decisions that affect community life. (Although authoritarian regimes sometimes organize political mobilization of the population, this is only done to generate support and enthusiasm for the official policy.)

Under the norms of democracy, the citizens establish public policy, based on their interests, aspirations and social values. Regardless of its formal structure, the government, following the ruling democratic procedures, is responsible for administering public policy, not setting it. The citizens are the ones who establish the policies through continuous and multi-faceted community activism. Under this democratic principle, electoral participation is less important than activism and its role is limited to normalizing the succession of the state’s administrative power.

Universal suffrage. Another inviolable democratic ideal has to do with the system of succession in political power, both for legislative representatives and for the state’s administrators (the executive branch). While in the traditional monarchies power was inherited through blood ties and in oligarchies it was up to the ruling class to designate the rulers, in democracies this is done by popular elections organized under the principle of universal suffrage. Universal suffrage is a late development in democracies. For many generations, long after the French Revolution and the consolidation of liberal republican regimes in Western countries, electoral participation for determining succession was limited to men in the educated and property-owning class. It was not until the 20th century that the right to vote was granted to women and all citizens, regardless of their level of education or social class, and the democratic principle of universal suffrage was finally adopted. In Puerto Rico, for example, women did not have the right to vote until 1936.

Equally as important as universal suffrage is the requirement that state administrators be elected for limited terms, whether for a determined duration (typically four, five or six years) or a flexible amount of time. The purpose is to ensure that politicians are in power for a limited period of time so they do not become entrenched in their positions, a situation that often leads to abuse of power. In Puerto Rico, there is no limit on terms (neither in the Constitution nor in the laws), but for more than half a century the parties have alternated in power, limiting the rule by one party to a maximum of two terms (eight years). In the United States, two terms are allowed, while in Mexico the term is six years and re-election is not allowed.

Separation of powers. Democratic thought assumes that abuse of power is a natural tendency of politics, which is why it establishes the principle of limiting the use of political authority through a formal separation of the state’s functions. There is both a territorial and functional dimension to the separation of powers. The territorial separation creates an internal division between governments at the central, regional and municipal levels. The purpose of this decentralization is that each jurisdiction can assume its own competencies, thus preventing the accumulation of excessive power in a single entity. In Puerto Rico, there are only two levels of territorial government: the central government and the municipalities. But in countries such as Canada and Mexico, to cite two examples, the central government shares authority with provincial and municipal governments. In the United States, in addition to the state and municipal levels, there are also counties, which have certain exclusive responsibilities. The way in which powers are shared between the central and territorial governments varies from country to country. When the balance of power favors the central government, it is often called a unitary or centralized state. Arrangements in which the provincial units retain broad powers are known as federalism. In general, the central government in a federation is responsible for powers specifically delegated by the federated units, which retain the remaining responsibilities.

The main form of separation of power, however, is horizontal or functional. The norms of democratic republics divide the government into three branches: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. The law establishes the operational role of each branch. In general terms, the executive branch administrates the state’s service agencies, the legislative branch is limited to approving laws and state expenditures (approving the state budget) and the judicial is responsible for administering the legal system and operating the courts. Each one is autonomous in the exercise of its functions and establishes its own administrative rules and regulations.

Rule of law. Another fundamental democratic principle is called the rule of law. According to this tradition, the only way to avoid abuse of power by the administrators of the state (the government) and protect the rights of citizens is to require everyone – both persons and institutions – to comply with the law. Nobody, in theory, in a democracy, is above the law (in other words, is authorized to violate the law) and all officials, no matter how powerful, are required to comply with the existing laws and regulations. The rule of law, which serves as an obstacle to arbitrary interpretation and application of laws and regulations, is considered an essential component of democratic life, without which it is impossible to protect the autonomy of the citizens. This does not mean that there have not been examples of serious contradictions in democracies and the issue continues to be a contentious one in legal and political arenas.

The Government section of the Puerto Rico Online Encyclopedia contains articles about each of these fundamental political principles. There are other important principles, practices and components of the democratic state such as, for example, the representation of citizens in state institutions and the organizational and inclusive roles of political parties. The functional relationship between all of these is a recurring theme in this encyclopedia, as is the role of the state in terms of social justice, equality, liberty and the well being of the community of citizens.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 12, 2014.

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