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Puerto Rico: Statehood Backer Leads But Unaffiliated Draw Support

There's an important political contest some 1,150 miles south of Florida: Voters in Puerto Rico will choose their next governor amid a year that saw a worsening of the island's financial situation that led to the implementation of a fiscal control board by the U.S. Congress.

Polls show the candidate advocating for statehood, Ricardo Rosselló, is ahead in the race, which could fuel a push to examine whether the island should become the 51st state.

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Roselló said that "the fact that we don't participate equally democratically or otherwise limits our capacity to progress."

Puerto Ricans who live in the island vote for governor and those who live in the U.S. vote in the presidential election; they can't do both.

In the island, the two main parties are the pro-statehood PNP — the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party) and the PPD — Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party), which advocates to keep the island's commonwealth or territorial status and is currently in power. The pro-independence party, the PIP (Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño), has traditionally had less support among the electorate; this year their candidate is María de Lourdes Santiago.

Amid the dire financial situation, the PPD candidate David Bernier has pledged to push for more local control for the island. “The status problem is important and we’ll address it,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

But for the first time in recent memory, two candidates running as Independents are getting support — close to 30 percent — according to the latest polls for Alexandra Lúgaro and Manuel Cidre. It's an unprecedented number in island politics; no unaffiliated candidate has ever reached levels that high.

“People in Puerto Rico are tired. The island is going through a real difficult situation economically and voters are looking for alternatives beyond the traditional political parties,” said Puerto Rico native Melisa Díaz, a political advisor in Washington, D.C. “Many people are disappointed with the two main political parties on the island.”

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The recent implementation of a fiscal control board that will oversee the restructuring of the island’s $72 billion debt is most certainly a factor in voter apathy and the rise of independent candidates, adds Díaz.

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“The fiscal control board has a great deal of authority over many issues on the island, and some people feel it’s not worth it to vote because it’s the fiscal control board and not the people they vote for who would have a final say on matters; the governor is some sort of figurehead and people say why bother (voting)."

Much like the States with the GOP and Democrats appealing for votes not just among party faithful but from supporters of the third party candidates, both main parties on the island are pulling all the stops to get as many votes as possible, focusing their last-minute efforts on those who are considering casting a ballot for the unaffiliated candidates.

One campaign video features former Governor Sila Calderón of the PPD party saying “if you are thinking of voting for an independent candidate, think real hard about that. All are honorable but none have any chance of winning. A vote for an independent candidate is a vote for the PNP and for statehood…I am and I always want to continue to be Puerto Rican.”

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The independent candidates say they are unfazed by the pushback from the Bernier and Rosselló camps. Alexandra Lúgaro is the frontrunner among the independents, and in closing out her campaign before the Tuesday vote she told a crowd, “A year and eight months ago, this started out as just an independent candidacy, with a fed-up person —I said I need to stop criticizing the government from the comfort of my living room and become a part of the decision-making process in this country."

Though analysts think the pro-statehood candidate has the better chance of winning the election, the excitement generated by the independent candidates reflect an election amid a tough few years.

“Of course we’ll have to see if that enthusiasm translates to turnout for them at the polls, but it certainly reflects that disappointment and apathy that voters feel, even on the island where politics is called a national sport,” says Díaz.

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