Puerto Rico Faces Close Governor’s Race and Statehood Vote

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For the first time since ousting their governor during the tumultuous summer of 2019, Puerto Ricans are heading to the polls Tuesday to choose new leadership and cast a non-binding vote on whether they want to be a full-fledged state.

The race in the bankrupt U.S. commonwealth pits the island’s former delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Pedro Pierluisi of the incumbent New Progressive Party, against Isabela Mayor Carlos Delgado Altieri with the Popular Democratic Party. A recent poll showed the men are tied, each with about 37% support.

Former Governor Ricardo Rossello was forced out of office in August 2019 amid mass street protests and corruption allegations. His successor, Wanda Vazquez, has been battling the pandemic and earthquakes even as she’s been mired in party infighting -- a fight she ultimately lost when Pierluisi sidelined her by winning the PNP gubernatorial primary earlier this year.

Puerto Rico Faces Close Governor’s Race and Statehood Vote

The prospect of a close race is elevating the role of long-shot candidate Alexandra Lugaro with the Citizens’ Victory Movement. Delgado Altieri’s campaign is concerned that Lugaro -- and to a lesser extent other independent candidates -- could siphon off just enough votes to tip the balance against them.

Both Pierluisi and Delgado Altieri are promising to fight entrenched corruption, speed up rebuilding after years of hurricanes and earthquakes, and jump-start an economy hard hit by population loss, Covid-19 and a historic 2017 bankruptcy.

Statehood

Their biggest difference comes down to the island’s territorial status.

Pierluisi and his PNP party want Puerto Rico to be a U.S. state, and they have organized a non-binding referendum on the issue on Election Day.

Puerto Rico Faces Close Governor’s Race and Statehood Vote

Delgado Altieri and the PPD advocate for improving the current territorial status, and claim the referendum is a ploy to get unmotivated PNP supporters to the polls. Statehood, they point out, is something that will be decided in Washington, not at the local ballot box.

Also on Nov. 3, voters will be asked if public pension payments should be enshrined in the constitution, even as a federally-appointed oversight board has warned that the government might have to shed thousands of jobs to pay for that promise.

Debt Reckoning

The biggest challenge facing the next administration is the island’s legacy of debt, said Pedro Reina-Perez, a political analyst at the University of Puerto Rico. The commonwealth’s finances are largely controlled by the oversight board, which is still trying to restructure some $18 billion in debt.

The board’s work over the last four years has been stymied by legal challenges and Covid-19. Now the island has until February to present a new debt restructuring plan and begin repaying many investors for the first time since 2016.

While the oversight board and the court determine much of the island’s immediate future, the next governor will have to balance signing a debt deal to repay billions to bondholders against pledges to safeguard public pensions, generate jobs and boost investments.

“This is kind of like round two for the board, and it’s here to make sure the government tightens its belt,” Reina-Perez said. “Both candidates have been making promises they cannot keep.”

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