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Puerto Rico’s two biggest parties hold primaries as governor seeks 2nd term and voters demand change

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The future of Puerto Rico’s political status and its rebounding but fragile economy are at the center of fiery debates as the island’s two biggest political parties hold contentious gubernatorial primaries on Sunday.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, head of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, is seeking a second term, running against Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Jenniffer González. The two ran on the same ticket four years ago, but González announced her plan to challenge Pierluisi in early December. Public jabs between the two have since turned acrimonious.

Running alongside Pierluisi for the position of congressional representative is Puerto Rico Sen. William Villafañe, while senior U.S. naval military officer Elmer Román, a former secretary of state for Puerto Rico, is seeking the position under González.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico Sen. Juan Zaragoza, who was highly lauded for his work as the island’s former treasury secretary, is running against Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz to be the main candidate for the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the island’s status quo as a U.S. territory.

Attorney Pablo José Hernández is running unopposed to be the party’s candidate for resident commissioner, the first person in 20 years to seek that nomination.

All candidates face disgruntled voters on an island still struggling with chronic power outages and high electric bills as it awaits completion of reconstruction projects following Hurricane Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm in September 2017.

Power outages remain such a big concern that the State Commission of Elections rented more than a dozen generators and a private power company identified 81 alternate voting sites with guaranteed electricity.

Other voter complaints include the difficulty of obtaining business permits, a fractured education system, and the island’s lack of access to capital markets after the local government emerged two years ago from the largest debt restructuring in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, more than $9 billion of debt owed by Puerto Rico’s power company, the largest of any government agency, remains unresolved. A federal judge overseeing a bankruptcy-like process has yet to rule on a restructuring plan following bitter negotiations between the government and bondholders.

Ahead of the primaries, Pierluisi has touted record tourist numbers, ongoing hurricane reconstruction and growing economic development among his successes as he seeks re-election. He has pledged to prioritize projects targeting children and the island’s growing elderly population, among other things.

An event marking the end of his campaign held a week before the primaries was headlined by former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned in August 2019 following nearly two weeks of massive protests touched off by a leak of crude and insulting chat messages between him and his top advisers.

His opponent, González, did not hold a campaign closer. She has pledged to crack down on corruption, award more funds to agencies to help victims of violence amid a surge in killings of women, and stem an exodus of doctors and other medical workers to the U.S. mainland.

Meanwhile, Zaragoza has promised to prioritize climate change and renewable energy, decentralize the island’s education department and improve access to health. His opponent, Ortiz, has pledged to improve the licensing process to retain doctors, simplify the island’s tax system and revamp health care.

Puerto Rico’s next governor will have to work alongside a federal control board that oversees the island’s finances and was created after the government declared bankruptcy.

Ahead of Sunday’s primaries, more than 4,900 inmates voted in prisons across the U.S. territory. The State Commission of Elections also has received and counted more than 122,000 early ballots.

Dánica Coto, The Associated Press

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