The succession of political power in modern democracies, or in other words the transfer of control of the administration of the state, is based on the popular vote with universal suffrage through a system of more or less periodic elections. Whether a presidential or a parliamentary system, all governments are temporary and, to remain in power, are subject to the will of the people as expressed at the voting polls. For these purposes, various social and ideological sectors competing for power organize political parties, which perform the main role of ordering and organizing the choices presented to the electorate by nominating candidates for the elections. They are nothing more or less than fundamental institutions in politics and perform a public role while remaining private entities.

The many roles of political parties include organizing and promoting electoral participation, representing their voters, recruiting new members and followers, administrating public affairs when they win elections and acting as the political opposition when they do not, setting strategies for winning power, recruiting personnel to perform as public officials, defining the ideological and policy positions of the sector (or sectors) they represent (thus establishing a political identity), and guiding followers in terms of their social vision. Additionally, in the case of Puerto Rico, the parties represent ideological alternatives related to the political and legal status relationship with the United States.

The nature of political parties (and their operational styles) depends on the political culture and experience of the countries in which they operate. In Puerto Rico, for example, the parties emphasize making promises to voters and the leadership is personality-based and authoritarian. During election campaigns, they offer voters a menu of offers and promises, but that does not mean they will fulfill them if they win the majority of the votes. There is a general belief that the party that wins an election has the power to revise its campaign promises and has the authority to implement public policies that the leadership believes are best, regardless of previous positions.

There are two characteristics of the parties’ habits of making promises to voters. The first is granting government jobs as a form of payment for personal support and for work done on behalf of the party. This applies to high-level positions as well as to intermediate and lower positions. The second practice consists of awarding government contracts to businesses and corporations that donate significant amounts of money during the campaigns. These donations are sometimes referred to as political investments. For these companies, electoral triumph is synonymous with political booty, a personal economic bonanza. This practice is so deeply rooted in the corporate world that many businesses, to ensure governmental support for the next four years, contribute equally to both main parties.

Another characteristic of political parties, one that is deeply rooted in the authoritarian tradition of Puerto Rican political culture, is the fact that the parties are personality-based. This cult of the leader has a huge influence on the operation of the political parties in Puerto Rico. This has often led to internal struggles in the parties when leaders (each with a group of followers) fight for control of the party or when new leaders appear and try to make a name for themselves. Recent examples were the disputes between Rosselló and Fortuño and the followers of Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and Rafael Hernández Colón.

Some power struggles within the political parties have come to be part of Puerto Rican political legend. Among them are Muñoz Marín against Antonio Barceló in 1938; the internal struggle between Luis Ferré and García Méndez for control of the pro-statehood sector in 1967; the unsuccessful challenge launched by Hernán Padilla, then mayor of San Juan, against Governor Romero Barceló; the movement led by Luis Negrón López against Roberto Sánchez Vilella; and the unsuccessful challenges to the leadership of Rubén Berrios in the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) by Gilberto Concepción Suárez, Antonio González, Noel Colón Martínez, Carlos Gallisá and David Noriega.

It appears that internal conflicts and interest groups encourage the development of factions within the parties. These factions are generally grouped around a leader, who may be a legislator, a mayor or a former governor. These internal alliances vary according to their particular interests. These divisions occur despite the fact that the parties portray themselves as homogenous and monolithic. From an organizational point of view, the parties are very centralized and are controlled by a formally constituted hierarchy, but at the same time they consist of various interests and ideological orientations, so in reality they are more heterogeneous than they appear.

Political parties claim to understand and act exclusively for the general good when negotiating social policies or making appointments to government posts. The laws and appointments approved by the majority usually are a response to the objective of controlling institutions or advancing an ideological cause. The general interest of the people does not play as big a role as they boast that it does. The parties promote the idea that it is important to control all of the state’s administrative structures and they extend their tentacles into autonomous social institutions. Their goal is an “electoral landslide” to be used to monopolize state power and use it on behalf of ideological and special interests. The idea that to govern effectively it is necessary to control public institutions, however, is damaging to political life because it sets back the professionalization of public service, weakens citizen dialogue (the public sphere), strengthens party bureaucracy and increases the role of the cult of personality and the habit of making promises in exchange for support in politics.

Today, Puerto Rican voters have shown dissatisfaction with the parties and demonstrated in various polls that they are displeased by their superficiality, demagoguery, corruption and authoritarianism. Despite this tendentious attitude, new parties appear to have little chance of surviving and usually do not last beyond the elections for which they were registered (the same is true for independent candidates). Such was the case with the Peoples Party, the Puerto Rican Renewal Party and, more recently, Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico. In terms of candidates beyond the two traditional parties, the political cemetery includes the candidacies of Juan Mari Brás, Roberto Sánchez Vilella, Neftalí García, ángel Quintero and, more recently, Orlando Parga.

Despite the general disapproval of the parties’ conduct, about 70% of voters continue to vote along traditional party lines. One possible explanation of this paradox is based on the fact that a significant part of the electorate is casting what is called the “punishment vote,” which means they are voting against the government in power in favor of an alternative that has a real chance of winning the election. But in general, for most voters, casting a vote is the only form of political participation available to them, but does not represent a change in the status quo. For some, the vote is also an opportunity to demonstrate unconditional support for the political status option of their preference. In the short and medium term, it is hard to foresee changes in the structure, form and procedures of the political parties in Puerto Rico, so it appears the current scene will remain the same in future elections.

Voting is the citizens’ form of participating in the succession of power. Although the parties play a vital role in this democratic process, freedom demands the institutionalization of civic activism beyond the framework of the parties. It is therefore important to develop a civic society that values social activism and political deliberation by citizens not just to influence the implementation of public policies, but also to question current officials and political parties, through a thoughtful dialogue of new ideas and imaginative public policies. At the same time, it is essential to create space, beyond the parties, for a free-speaking public debate about collective interests and alternatives for the future. In other words, the democratic ethic recognizes the centrality of the political parties, but it also demands the free exercise of politics to prevent the parties from monopolizing the public sphere.

One of the challenges the parties face in the coming elections is to broaden democratic participation in their internal procedures. Among the measures that should be urgently adopted is opening the way for new civic leaders, including a greater number of women in elective official and positions of power. Primary elections should become a normal part of elections, including candidates who are not preapproved by the party machinery.

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

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