In theory, a democratic society elects representatives of different political sectors to make up a collective body that, in the name of the constituents, agrees on laws that will govern social coexistence. The representation may be territorial or based on population, but the general supposition is that all members of the Legislative Assembly, regardless of how it is constituted, will represent their constituents. In this context, political parties organize the process of nominating candidates for the legislative positions but, at least in theory, that does not change the representatives’ obligation to the constituents once they are elected.
In practice, however, the political parties’ power over the legislators is enormous, especially in countries where centralized power systems prevail and in which the culture values authority over governing through consensus (authoritarian political cultures). Puerto Rico is one of these, so the habit of putting party obedience above freedom of thought and action has developed.
In addition to exercising party control over legislators through informal mechanisms and loyalty, two institutions have been created in Puerto Rico that clearly show how the political parties impose their legislative will on the interests of the general public and that the representatives elected under a system of representing the population have become, above all else, active agents of the political parties that nominate them. One of these institutions is called the party caucus. Caucus, a word with Latin origins, refers to meetings of the legislators of each political party in which the party leadership reports on its objectives related to issues under consideration in the Legislature. The purpose of the caucus is to ensure that there are no discrepancies (that nobody breaks ranks) among party members and that everyone votes as a bloc, following the leadership’s instructions. It is an internal procedure in both houses in Puerto Rico and is typically presided over by the party leader in that legislative body. The president of the legislative body leads the majority caucus and the opposition caucus is led by the minority leader.
When a party’s president is governor and controls the executive branch (which under the Constitution is separate from the legislative branch), the majority party exercises control over the legislators in its party through a “legislative conference.” This event, convened by the governor, usually takes place at La Fortaleza when the governor, who is usually the party president, believes it is necessary to avoid internal dissidence over some issue of public policy and to present a common front publicly. The legislative conference also has the symbolic value of showing the public the power of the party (and government) leader. The message is that the governor is in control of his party, including the legislators.
These two procedures, institutionalized by the political parties outside the constitutional framework, are effective authoritarian means of rewarding party obedience over autonomous thought and action. This contradicts the ideas of democratic representation and separation of powers. Given this situation, it is worthwhile to ask whether the Legislative Assembly’s current crisis of legitimacy is rooted not in its particular internal makeup but rather in the control exercised upon it by the political parties. If so, Puerto Rican democracy faces a monumental challenge: How can citizen action, beyond participating in elections, be encouraged and rescue governmental institutions from the crude and tight control of the parties?
Returning to the level of theory, democratic ideals assume that elected public officials, in addition to representing a sector of the population, must be morally sound and have the ability to intelligently and rationally consider public issues, taking into consideration the interests of the general public and their constituents. In practice, unfortunately, the political parties have been given the exclusive power to nominate political candidates and that has become a means of political patronage that puts party loyalty above morals, intellectual formation, and a spirit of service. Today, party loyalty is the main qualification for those who occupy or aspire to occupy public office. These are the same people, paradoxically, who are called on by the Constitution and democratic principles to represent the interests of their communities.
From the technical and theoretical perspective of political science, some argue that nominating candidates for elections is precisely the main (and exclusive) function of the political parties, their reason for existing. If so, and if the Puerto Rican people accept that the only viable procedural means for nominating candidates for election is through political parties (with independent candidates being the exception that proves the rule), then it is worth asking why the current electoral law, which was written by the current parties, imposes such onerous restrictions for organizing new parties (even small parties) that could articulate alternative public policies through alliances and coalitions. Clearly, the current trend, promoted by the existing parties, is toward consolidation of a two-party system (as exists in the United States), which has been shown by empirical studies to limit the range of ideologies offered on the ballot.
Regardless of reforms that may be considered to make the Legislative Assembly more representative and more truly perform the autonomous role it is given by the Constitution and democratic standards, it is obvious that the most effective route is not to alter the internal composition of the legislative bodies or the number of members, but rather to break the monopoly of the political parties and open politics to pluralist participation by a wide range of social sectors and ideological factions. One way to open up politics is to amend the electoral law to facilitate the organization of new and small political parties that broaden the diversity of legislative representation. This reform should broaden democratic participation by ensuring the legislative participation of these parties based on the percentage of votes obtained. Another way would be to offer incentives for the formation of community and interest groups that could formally demand that their representatives meet their agreed-upon demands, regardless of the interests of the party leadership. Facilitating the organization of small parties and broadening the range of direct participation can be mechanisms that lead to limiting the power of the parties. This goal, undoubtedly, is one of the great challenges for the development of Puerto Rican democracy.
Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.
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