Waving flags and dressed in the red and blue of their parties, Puerto Ricans voted Sunday in local primaries seen as the next round in a battle over their complex relationship with the United States.
Opponents of making Puerto Rico the 51st state are desperately trying to unseat Gov. Pedro Rossello’s New Progressive Party in November 2000, when voters will fill every elected office.
On Sunday, voters were picking a Popular Democratic Party candidate for Puerto Rico’s nonvoting seat in Congress; that seat is now filled by a New Progressive Party member. They were also picking 95 mayoral candidates and 103 legislative candidates.
Rossello’s party has controlled the government since 1992, leading a failed pro-statehood crusade.
The anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party now leads in the polls, and a victory in 2000 could put the statehood movement in the deep freeze--but the primaries have exposed deep rifts in the Popular Democratic Party that could undermine its campaign.
“We have to win this  election,” said the Popular Democratic Party’s Jose Hernandez Mayoral, who is running for the congressional seat--against his party leader’s wishes. “If not, the New Progressive Party will continue to push for statehood referendums and we will fall into the eternal paralysis of the debate over our political status.”
Caravans of sound trucks wound through San Juan blaring campaign jingles set to a salsa beat and candidates made their last-minute pitches to voters on Saturday night.
Preliminary results were expected late Sunday night.
Puerto Rico’s residents are U.S. citizens and serve in the military but cannot vote for president; they also get billions in federal funds while paying no federal taxes.
Relations with the United States have been strained recently by a dispute over a U.S. Navy training ground on the island of Vieques. President Clinton’s release of jailed Puerto Rican independence fighters further stirred emotions, and both issues have prompted anti-American rallies in recent months.
Sunday’s most hotly contested races were in the Popular Democratic Party, wracked by a power struggle between gubernatorial candidate Sila Calderon and former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon.
Hernandez Colon wants his son, Hernandez Mayoral, as the party’s congressional candidate. Calderon supports party Vice President Anibal Acevedo Vila, who helped lead a successful campaign against Rossello in a December 1998 referendum on statehood.
Running for San Juan mayor are Sen. Eduardo Bhatia and physician Richard Machado from the Popular Democratic Party and Senate President Charlie Rodriguez against his former protege, Sen. Jorge Santini, in the New Progressive Party.
The San Juan mayor’s job is seen as a steppingstone to the governor’s mansion. All of the city’s last five mayors ran for governor, although only one won.
National primaries in which Puerto Ricans will choose Republican and Democratic party candidates for president will be held in March.
Also on Sunday, Rossello said he rejected a new offer by President Clinton that would allow Navy exercises to resume on Vieques.
Rossello told reporters he spoke with Clinton by telephone twice on Saturday and rejected Clinton’s proposal to allow non-explosive, “dummy” bombs during training on Vieques.