Tuesday's defeat of Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo by former governor Rafael Hernandez Colon dealt a setback to forces seeking to make this island the 51st state.
Colon, head of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), defeated Barcelo, of the New Progressive Party (NPP), by more than 52,000 votes. Colon could have lost had it not been for the candidacy of outgoing San Juan Mayor Hernan Padilla, who received 67,361 votes, mainly from statehood supporters.
Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States. A major political force on the island is the PDP, which favors retaining commonwealth status, sometimes called the "free associated state." Another is the pro-statehood NPP and a third, though diminished in power since the 1950s, is the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), which is seeking the island's independence.
The election robbed the statehood movement of its power base in goverment. In addition to Barcelo, NPP founder Luis Ferre was defeated in his bid for a Senate seat, and Resident Commissioner Baltasar Corrada del Rio, Puerto Rico's representative in the U.S. Congress, won the San Juan mayor's race by only 9,000 votes in a bastion of statehood supporters.
In the gubernatorial race, Colon won 808,986 votes, 47.8 percent; Barcelo 756,100, 44.7 percent; Padilla 67,361 votes, 3.9 percent, and PIP candidate Fernando Martin 60,333, 3.5 percent. The PDP also will increase its number of municipalities from 50 to 54 of 78 while its three-vote majority in the legislature is expected to increase.
Final totals from the election, in which 86 percent of the island's voters participated, are to be made official this week.
While the statehood movement has been checked by the PDP triumph, support for this goal remains solid although the party is in disarray. Commonwealth supporters will have four years to galvanize sentiment for the island's free associated state movement as well as the chance to win back any statehood backers and swing voters disillusioned by Colon's first-term performance.
The independence movement, cheered by the massive turnout for its two successful legislative candidates, will have a forum to showcase its leaders and ideology, although it is too early to say whether this will produce lasting growth for the tiny party. The survival of the Puerto Rican Renewal Party, a group made up primarily of statehood supporters who elected Padilla, is uncertain.
It was the third time Colon and Barcelo had faced each other in the governor's race and the fourth time that Colon, governor from 1972 to 1976, sought the office.
With the statehood strength in Padilla's vote, the island remains as polarized on the status issue as it was four years ago when Barcelo won the gubernatorial race by only 3,000 votes.
Statehood supporters have blamed their downfall on Padilla's splinter group and on droves of independence sympathisers who they say voted for Colon exclusively to defeat the governor. Rep. Jose Granados Navedo of the NPP believes that at least 38,000 votes came from independence advocates to bolster Colon.
"Carlos got about the same number of votes as in 1980. People estimated that four out of five of Padilla's votes were statehooders," said Navedo. "Padilla walked away with the votes we needed to win."
Barcelo was dogged in his last term by a series of Puerto Rican Senate investigations into allegations of kickbacks to government officials that ended up in NPP coffers, as well as several resignations of public officials under fire. However, the most politically damaging of the investigations was a police execution in 1978 of two independentist youths in the secluded Toro Negro State Forest.
Repeated investigations, including two by the U.S. Justice Department, exonerated the policemen as having fired in self-defense against the two alleged terrorists.
The Senate was not able to prove that the governor had ordered the killings.
Padilla, as mayor of San Juan, had been the heir apparent to the NPP's gubernatorial post after Barcelo. However, Padilla's popularity in the NPP led Barcelo to issue a veiled challenge to his rival at a party rally. Padilla later responded by founding his own "rainbow" party, a group he said would unite people of all status preferences under one banner for competent, depoliticized government.
Puerto Rico's parties traditionally have been built around status preferences, and supporters vote massively in straight-party tickets. Padilla also had styled himself as a voice of compromise between the two warring major parties.
One unusual aspect of the election was the victory of two PIP candidates in at-large positions in the Senate and the House. Ruben Berrios, president of the PIP, and David Noriega, a virtual unknown, were catapulted to the legislature by an electorate apparently seeking a neutral voice between the two major parties.
The draw of the PIP, which was the second largest party in the early 1950s, has dwindled to between 3 and 6 percent of the electorate in recent years.
Resident Commissioner Corrada del Rio, as NPP vice president and mayor-elect of San Juan, seems the next obvious leader of the statehood movement.
However, Corrada does not have as forceful a personality as Barcelo and may be resented in his party for winning San Juan by only 9,000 votes in an NPP stronghold; Padilla had won city hall in 1980 by 33,000 votes. Barcelo also may decide to stay on as party chief as Colon did in the past.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Delegate to the U.S. Congress Ron De Lugo, a Democrat, said he was reelected Tuesday with 79 percent of the vote.