Following the 2016 elections, several progressive forces had discussed creating a broad anti-neoliberal party that would welcome all views on the status question, aside from a general repudiation of colonialism. The aim: to uproot the political landscape by realigning it along the left-right axis rather than the national question.
These conversations culminated in the formation of the Citizens’ Victory Movement (MVC) in 2019. The new party’s “Urgent Agenda” emphasised the fight against corruption, the restoration of labour rights, and the rescue of public spaces and institutions from privatisation. Meanwhile, the PIP, while declining to join the new project due to its insistence that independence should be part of any political programme, also seemed to shift course and focus on socio-economic issues instead of the national question.
The upshot: come November, Puerto Ricans would have two progressive alternatives on the ballot.
The Left makes a breakthrough
This month’s elections rocked the two-party system and their neoliberal consensus even more than in 2016. The MVC and PIP gubernatorial candidates obtained 14% each, while the winning candidate, from the PNP, barely obtained 33%. In other words, only 5% separated the winning candidate from the progressive parties’ combined vote. The 2016 electoral earthquake, it seems, was no fluke. In fact, it appears the aftershock was even more powerful than the original blow.
And the MVC-PIP’s breakthrough was not just a gubernatorial phenomenon. They also ran well in the legislature.
Historically, parties outside the PNP-PPD duopoly have only been able to elect a single member in each house of the legislative assembly. Puerto Rico’s system combines first-past-the-post in individual legislative districts with cumulative at-large seats. There are eleven at-large seats for each house, and no political party can nominate more than six. Normally, this means that the winning party elects its entire slate of six legislators, the second-place winner elects four, and the third party is able to elect a single member.
In this month’s election, the PNP-PPD only managed to elect six of the eleven at-large seats between them in the senate and seven of eleven in the House of Representatives. The PIP retained its historic single member in each house, while MVC managed to elect two senators and two representatives. In the senate, a fairly progressive independent candidate was able to win re-election — a first in Puerto Rican electoral politics.
But the progressive insurgency may not be done yet. The MVC’s candidate for San Juan major is currently locked in a close battle for first place with the PNP. While it seems the PNP will be able to eke out a victory under a cloud of irregularities, the MVC candidate Manuel Natal – himself a member of the House of Representatives and a former PPD member who broke with that party because of its neoliberal tendencies – was able to garner more than 30% of the vote, a stunning performance for a new progressive electoral project.
The same can be said about Eva Prados, MVC candidate for one of San Juan’s single-member House districts. She is currently knifing it out with the PNP candidate after leaving behind the PPD in third place. She would be the first-ever single-district House member outside the PNP-PPD duopoly.
The new at-large MVC members of the legislature have strong roots in the Left. First, the House: Mariana Nogales Molinelli was president of the Working People’s Party (PPT) and its candidate for resident commissioner in 2016. She is a tireless activist and permanent presence in Puerto Rico’s social movements. Nogales received over 80,000 votes, the highest tally of all MVC at-large candidates. José Bernardo Márquez is a young progressive, the son of a well-known PNP mayor who exemplifies his generation’s break with the traditional parties.
In the senate, Ana Irma Rivera Lassén is a long-standing activist in anti-racism and LGBT struggles. And Rafael Bernabe, the former gubernatorial candidate for the PPT, has solid socialist bona fides.
Looking to the future
Although the MVC did not win the election in terms of vote totals, it has transformed the political map, made impressive legislative inroads, mobilised important sectors of society – particularly young people – and now has a viable path to victory in 2024.
Many are now proposing an MVC-PIP alliance. And while the Puerto Rican left has an unfortunate history of sectarianism (and even though the national question serves as a seemingly permanent fracture point), some form of electoral unity appears possible.
The next four years will be critical to see if the Left can build on its initial success. The PPD was able to muster a bare majority in the legislature, which means there will be a divided government with the PNP-led executive.
The Left’s position is still tentative. But, for the first time in decades, it has become a major force in Puerto Rican electoral politics.
Jorge M. Farinacci-Fernós is an associate professor at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Law. He was a PPT candidate for San Juan City Council in 2016.
This article was originally published on Jacobin.