Party Politics and the Future of Puerto Rico

In a major upset for the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), the 2016 General Elections flipped both chambers of the Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly and the Office of the Governor, transferring political control from the PPD over to the New Progressive Party (PNP). The PPD took a major hit in the Senate when eight majority incumbents lost their campaigns for re-election to PNP newcomers. Three more open Senate seats were subsequently filled by PNP candidates when the PPD incumbents decided not to run. The House of Representatives also experienced an upheaval with seven incumbents including the Speaker of tParty Politics and the Future of Puerto Rico (Featured)he House, Representative Jaime Perelló Borrás (PPD), losing their bid for re-election to PNP candidates.

The 2016 General Elections

This dramatic transition of power was made possible by Puerto Rico’s unique electoral system. According to the Puerto Rico Constitution, the island is split into 8 Senatorial Districts and 40 House Districts of approximately equal population. Additionally, both Chambers of the Legislative Assembly have 11 members who are elected At-Large. All 27 Senate seats and 51 House seats are up for election every four years coinciding with the end of a four-year Legislative Session. For the members who directly represent districts, all political parties receive equal opportunity to select one candidate per House District and two candidates per Senatorial District during the primaries. For the At-Large seats, Puerto Rico’s two main parties (PPD and PNP) receive special treatment in their primaries and can each select up to 6 candidates for the 11 At-Large seats. Puerto Ricans can choose to vote for any candidates they wish in any combination of political affiliation on their district ballot; however, they can only vote for one Senate At-Large candidate and one House At-Large candidate. The At-Large candidates are selected in a first-past-the-post popular vote with the leading 11 candidates each winning a seat. As a result of this representative framework and in light of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis, the 2016 General Election became a public referendum on the major parties’ political agendas. The following grids represent the impact of the election results on the Legislative Assembly’s potential partisan split:

Senate Partisan Split (According to Elections Results)*
Political Party 2013-2016 Regular Session 2016-2020 Regular Session
Popular Democratic Party (PPD) 18 4
New Progressive Party (PNP) 8 21
Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) 1 1
Working People’s Party (PPT) 0 0
Independent (I) 0 1
House of Representatives Partisan Split (According to Elections Results)*
Political Party 2013-2016 Regular Session 2017-2020 Regular Session
Popular Democratic Party (PPD) 28 16
New Progressive Party (PNP) 23 34
Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) 0 1
Working People’s Party (PPT) 0 0
Independent (I) 0 0

*results for the 2016 General Election come from la Comision Estatal de Elecciones: House Districts, Senate Districts, House At-Large, Senate At-Large and Governor.

The Law of Minorities

The New Progressive Party (PNP) now controls two-thirds of the seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives while the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) now represents the minority. As a result of this PNP supermajority, a special provision within the Puerto Rico Constitution called the Law of Minorities has been instated. The Law of Minorities (Article III, Section 7) stipulates that if in a general election:

  • more than two-thirds of the members of either Chamber are elected from the same political party; and
  • the political party that obtained a supermajority in the House or the Senate obtained less than a two-thirds majority of the votes cast for the Office of the Governor;

Then the number of members in each Chamber must be increased so that minority membership accounts for one third of the original membership of each legislative body. Therefore, there must be at least 17 minority party members in the House and at least 9 minority party members in the Senate.

The number of newly elected minority members in the House is exactly 17 so there is no need to increase House membership; however, only 6 non-PNP members were elected to the Senate according to the polls. Traditionally, the three minority party Senate At-Large candidates that received the next highest percentage of votes in the general election should now be included in Senate Membership. According to the Senate At-Large election results, these three candidates all belong to the Popular Democratic Party (PPD).

The sitting Senate President Eduardo Bhatia (PPD), who was one of the four successfully re-elected PPD Senators, is currently appealing to have a fourth minority Senate member added under the Law of Minorities. He claims that Senator At-Large Elect José Vargas Vidot (I) cannot be counted as a minority member under the law as he is not affiliated with any party. If this interpretation of the Law of Minorities is upheld, a fourth additional Senate member At-Large will be chosen from losing candidates. It is difficult to say which candidate might receive consideration for this potential fourth seat as the constitution requires the new members’ representation to be in proportion to the percentage of votes that each minority party received in the gubernatorial election.  A fourth member would likely bypass the People’s Working Party (PPT) Senate At-Large candidate in favor of another PPD candidate as Rafael Bernabe Riefkohl (PPT) received only 0.34% of the gubernatorial vote. The following is the Senate Partisan Split including newly increased membership:

Senate Partisan Split (Including the Law of Minorities)
Political Party 2013-2016 Regular Session 2017-2020 Regular Session
Popular Democratic Party (PPD) 18 7**
New Progressive Party (PNP) 8 21
Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) 1 1**
Working People’s Party (PPT) 0 0**
Independent (I) 0 1

** If José Vargas Vidot (I) is determined to not be considered a minority member, one of these numbers will increase to include another party-affiliated candidate.

The New Progressive Party (PNP) Political Agenda

As a result of the drastic change in party control, all leadership roles will change in the 2017-2020 Legislative Session. Governor-Elect Ricardo Rosselló Nevares (PNP) has announced that Senator Thomas Rivera Schatz (PNP) will resume his former role as president of the Senate. Senator Schatz served as Senate President previously during the 2009-2013 Regular Session. Senator Larry Seilhamer (PNP) was named Senate President Pro Tempore and Senator Carmelo Ríos (PNP) will be the majority leader. Senator Ángel Chayanne Martínez (PNP) has been announced as Majority Whip.

This major change in leadership and partisan control is especially important considering the priorities of the New Progressive Party’s legislative agenda. The PNP is a politically conservative party that has built its current legislative agenda on seeking autonomy for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Governor-Elect Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has stated that lack of statehood is one of the critical roots of the problems facing Puerto Rico. Rosselló Nevares’ plan intends to cut government bureaucracy by reducing more than 120 different government agencies down to 50, removing barriers to trade for corporations wishing operate in Puerto Rico, and creating a path to statehood.

Governor-Elect Ricardo Rosselló Nevares (PNP) revealed his intent to pursue the Tennessee Plan for a path to statehood in a press conference November 9. This Tennessee Plan mimics the process that Tennessee undertook to bypass the constitutional Northwest Ordinance (the traditional path to statehood for US Territories) and fast-track themselves to statehood back in 1796. The plan would require the territory to hold a referendum seeking immediate statehood. Once this passes, the Governor and Legislative Assembly will hold a convention to establish a state constitutional government as well as hold elections for congressional representation to lobby on behalf of Puerto Rican statehood in the House and the Senate. Essentially, the plan is to declare themselves a State and convince Congress to agree.  California, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, and Oregon all became States using this method; however, not all states attempting the Tennessee Plan are successful. New Mexico attempted in 1850 but was unable to achieve statehood until 1912. More recently, Alaska successfully utilized the Tennessee Plan, becoming a state in 1959. Puerto Rico held a referendum for statehood back in 2012, where 61% of participants chose to support statehood. While sitting Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla (PPD) did not take legislative action as a based on this referendum, the results still stand.

Governor-Elect Ricardo Rosselló Nevares (PNP) declared that he will begin implementation of the Tennessee Plan in the first month of the 2017-2020 Legislative Session. Rosselló Nevares has stated that he will hold special elections to choose two Senators and five Representatives for Puerto Rico to send to Congress and demand statehood. He believes that since the Republican platform is traditionally more sympathetic to Puerto Rico’s statehood, he will be able to work with the Republican Congress and Senate as well as President-elect Donald Trump (R) in order to promote the PNPs’ goals of autonomy. Puerto Rican House Representative At-Large Jose F. Aponte Hernández (PNP) recently wrote a blog post on popular media outlet The Hill echoing this sentiment, calling on the Republican Party to uphold their agreed upon platform from this summer’s GOP National Convention. Aponte Hernández is referring to page 30 of the 2016 Republican Party Official Platform which states, “We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state. We further recognize the historic significance of the 2012 local referendum in which a 54 percent majority voted to end Puerto Rico’s current status as a U.S. territory, and 61 percent chose statehood over options for sovereign nationhood.” In light of this statement, Puerto Rico is now looking at the most favorable environment possible for statehood as long as the island’s new delegation can persuade Congress and the White House to stick to the Republican Party Platform.