The branch of government that administers the state is the executive branch. Although in theory, public policy is determined by civil society through direct representation and participation in the legislative branch (the Legislature is the only institution that can approve laws), and the role of the executive branch is merely to administer the laws, the reality in Puerto Rico is that the governor and his direct subordinates are those who impose public policy. In practice, the power granted by the Constitution to the houses of the Legislature has taken a subordinate position. When the Legislature is dominated by the governor’s political party, it is subordinate to the governor. And when the opposition has a legislative majority and there is a divided government, the legislature represents the opposition party. Experience shows that the Legislature, in its day-to-day work, does not represent the voters in either of these cases. This state of legislative subordination is based on the political parties. The higher rank that the Puerto Rican political culture gives to the governor over the Legislature (although this is not in the Constitution, which states that the primary governmental institution is the Legislative Assembly) is symbolized by the tradition that the candidate for governor also serves as president of his or her party. Since the governor controls the party finances, political campaigns always emphasize the candidate for governor over the other candidates (for the Legislature and mayors), so the candidate’s communicative (and emotional) impact on the voters is a key factor in the election results. This authoritarian practice, rooted in the nature of the presidential system, as codified in our political culture, makes the governor the main political figure in Puerto Rico, in terms of both real and symbolic power. The fact that the candidate for governor is also the party president is not a constitutional requirement, but it is the norm for the two main political parties. (The Puerto Rican Independence Party is an exception. As a minority party, its president retains his post regardless of who is nominated by the party as candidate for governor in the general elections.)

When the governor’s party does not win a majority in the Legislature, which to date has been the exception, a situation is created that causes a division of power between the executive and legislative branches, generating a political crisis for the island because there is no liberal parliamentary tradition of governing based on deals and agreements between different political sectors. The last such case occurred in 2005-2009, when Popular Democratic Party Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá had to share political power with a Legislature controlled by the opposition party.

Despite the complex relationship between the executive and legislative branches, it is clearly stipulated in the Constitution that the former is responsible for administering the state, ensuring its security, maintaining public order, protecting citizens from exploitation by powerful economic interests and providing a wide range of public services as defined by the Puerto Rican welfare state. To implement and supervise regulations that protect the public interest and provide the corresponding social services (especially education, health care, security and other social services), an extensive state bureaucracy has been created that, at least formally, is led and supervised by the governor. The public corporations are the exceptions. These, because of their importance in terms of providing essential social services, such as electricity, water and higher education (among others) are formally autonomous. They are supposed to operate on the basis of their own professional criteria without direct supervision by the executive branch. (See Public Corporations I and Public Corporations II.)

The executive branch of the government of Puerto Rico is led by a governor elected every four years through universal suffrage, after being nominated by his or her political party. In reality, a candidate for governor must have the support of a duly registered political party. The Commonwealth Constitution does not impose term limits on how many times a governor can be re-elected, but the usual pattern since 1964 has been that governors are elected for no more than one or two terms. This habit of changing parties periodically each four or eight years is known as political alternation and has had profound effects on the continuity of social services and the stability of public service.

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

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