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A rough season ahead for Puerto Rican politics

Puerto Rican Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo begins his second term at week's end amid controversy over his very narrow election victory and uncertainty over the composition of the island's next legislature.

Moreover, the bitterly contested gubernatorial campaign, with its charges of dirty politics, has left a legacy of ill will and suspicion that will be hard for Governor Romero Barcelo to overcome.

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In fact, the next four years of Puerto Rican politics may well be the most difficult for the island in its 30 years of commonwealth (or free state) association with the United States.

Mr. Romero Barcelo wants to strengthen that association, making Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico the 51st state. But even the governor admits that the narrowness of the vote last Nov. 4 has scotched such plans at least for the next four years.

Puerto Rican voters, who had been expected to reelect Governor Romero Barcelo , surprised most pollsters by giving him such lukewarm support. Although he wound up with a 3,503-victory margin, out of 1.7 million votes cast, it looked for much of the ballot count that former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon would edge out the incumbent.

Mr. Hernandez Colon's Partido Democratico Popular (PDP) did win the upper house of the island legislature, and in a still-undecided count may have won the lower house as well. The PDP also easily won the majority of the island's mayoral races -- an important win since Puerto Rican politics are based largely on local issues.

Amid the continuing uncertainty over the legislative election, a federal judge on the island Dec. 24 invalidated some ballots previously awarded the PDP and them ordered a second recount of about half the ballots cast in the confused election.

The ruling will not affect the outcome of the gubernatorial race, but it could well give the PDP the lower house. At the moment, the two major parties, the PDP and Governor Romero Barcelo's Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), each have 25 seats, with control hinging on the outcome of the race in House District 35, which the election commission has awarded to the PNP candidate by five disputed votes.

But the PDP is challenging the award -- and the courts are looking into the matter. If those five disputed ballots are declared invalid, the PDP could emerge the victor in District 35 and thus win control of the House with a 26-to- 25 split of seats.

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That prospect, of course, would make Governor Romero BArcelo's second term even more contentious. Neither the governor nor the PDP is inclined to compromise on issues. There is strong dislike within each party for politicians of the other party. Moreover, Governor Romero Barcelo is seen by the PDP as "the dirtiest politician ever to serve this island," as one PDP politician said recently.

Many PNP politicians, however, would lay that accolade on former Governor Hernandez Colon. Yet recent samplings of Puerto Rican opinion suggest that a majority of islanders, even many of those who voted for Governor Romero Barcelo, see the incumbent governor as a more aggressive politician. Labels such as "dirty," "vindictive," and "gut-fighter" are frequently used in describing him.

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