External Affairs

How Left Became a Relevant Player in Puerto Rican Electoral Politics

Puerto Ricans dealt a severe blow to their neoliberal, two-party system in the general election this month, with progressive forces making a major breakthrough.

Since 1968 Puerto Rico has had a stable two-party system, split on the so-called status question rather than the traditional left-right divide. The once-dominant Popular Democratic Party (PPD) supports maintaining the current commonwealth arrangement with the United States, while the New Progressive Party (PNP) advocates statehood. Both parties embrace neoliberal policies, though PPD is generally more liberal on social issues like LGBT rights.

For decades, the PNP and PPD have alternated power, normally garnering 95% of the vote. The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), social-democratic leaning but prioritising the issue of independence, has usually brought up the rear. The non-nationalist left, while relatively well-rooted in the labor and student movements, has never been able to break through electorally.

Until now. In the November 3 general election, as many eyes focused on the US presidential race, progressives in Puerto Rico dealt a serious blow to the two-party system. The PNP-PPD’s combined vote total plummeted, the PIP and a new left party attracted broad support, and neoliberalism was put on notice.

The neoliberal consensus starts to break

The island’s duopoly showed its first signs of cracking in 2016. The PNP-PPD’s total vote fell from 96% to 80%, and while the losing gubernatorial candidate in 2008 received 42% of the vote, the winner in 2016 received 41%. Two independent candidates, expressing moderate but vaguely anti-establishment positions, were able to tap into workers’ growing frustration at decades of corruption and austerity, coupled with the lingering recession. Still, the explicitly left parties did relatively poorly, leading to mixed verdicts at the time. While support for the two neoliberal parties fell sharply, left forces were not able to fully capitalise.

Then came the historic summer of 2019. After the leak of a chat between PNP governor Ricardo Rosselló and his top aides that revealed their racism, misogyny, corruption, and contempt for the poor, the island exploded in the largest popular mobilisations in its history. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets demanding the governor’s resignation. The “Ricky Renuncia” slogan became an instant social phenomenon. Young people, particularly young women, led the way. Rosselló resigned within weeks, the first governor in Puerto Rico’s constitutional history to do so. The island of Puerto Rico hasn’t been the same since.

Demonstrators chant and wave Puerto Rican flags during ongoing protests calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico July 23, 2019. Reuters/Marco Bello