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The Successor for Puerto Rican Governor Doesn’t Want the Job. Here’s Who’s Next in Line

Puerto Rico’s worst political crisis in decades is intensifying after the commonwealth’s governor-in-waiting Wanda Vazquez, said she doesn’t want to take power, leaving the bankrupt island facing an unprecedented succession impasse.

On Sunday, Vazquez, the secretary of justice, said in a Twitter post that she hoped Governor Ricardo Rossello would nominate a different successor before he steps down Aug. 2. Vazquez, an ally of the outgoing governor and a member of his New Progressive Party, is next in line because the secretary of state position is vacant.

Her announcement raises pressure on Rossello, who has less than a week to nominate a new secretary of state, adding to Puerto Rico’s dysfunction and political chaos. That person would need confirmation from a majority in both houses of the island’s legislature.

The official next in succession after Vazquez is Francisco Pares, the treasury secretary, who, at 31, is not old enough to be governor. The minimum age is 35. Next in line appears to be Education Secretary Eligio Hernandez, who told a local radio station Monday that he was focused on his current role. Rossello’s office did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

The next governor will inherit a recession-scarred economy and citizenry angered by austerity measures as the island navigates a record bankruptcy and tries to rebuild from 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria. He or she will have to work with the federally-appointed fiscal oversight that is negotiating with bondholders to reduce the island’s billions of dollars in debt. The political crisis may delay the restructuring.

“You need a governor in the best of times, and you especially need a leader when all this stuff is going on,” said Dora Lee, director of research at Belle Haven Investments which holds some insured Puerto Rico debt. “It’s just gone so far down the succession chain, everyone is scratching their head asking: ‘Who is next?’”

Late July 24, Rossello said he would leave office halfway through his four-year term, after weeks of massive protests over the publication of profanity-laced chats between him and his inner circle. The chat scandal forced the resignation of the sitting secretary of state -- next in line to fill a vacancy in the governor’s office -- and leaving Vazquez, the secretary of justice, as next under the constitution.

Rossello’s administration had been weakened by the resignations and the indictment this month of two officials on charges of steering contracts to favored companies. The succession fight also brings into relief just how quickly the balance of power has shifted in Puerto Rico, an island of 3.2 million people. The commonwealth’s politicians, accustomed to cutting back-room deals and horse-trading, suddenly face an energized and vocal mass protest movement that succeeded in ousting Rossello, and demonstrators have indicated they may go after other politicians and even the oversight board.

Party Clash

Vazquez faces stiff opposition on her own, perhaps explaining her reluctance to take power: from demonstrators, members of her own party -- with whom she had clashed over investigations -- and from opposition lawmakers, who complained she was part of the same corrupt system as Rossello. The antagonism from within both her party as well as the opposition weighed heavily against her appointment.

“In every scandal we’ve had on the island, she failed to investigate. She covered it up,” House Minority Leader Representative Rafael Hernandez said in a telephone interview. “That’s why nobody wanted her to become governor.”

Vazquez has denied allegations of wrongdoing, calling them “vicious” attacks. A mass demonstration has been called for Monday outside Vasquez’s office to call for her resignation.

Hernandez said leaders in the New Progressive Party are jockeying behind the scenes to be nominated secretary of state and thus next in line to be governor. Any confirmation process could be done within 48 hours, he said.

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who is among the potential candidates to replace Rossello, said party leaders would listen to the advice of well-intentioned sectors, but warned of others trying to take advantage of the situation for personal gain.

“There will be actors pushing political, ideological, and particularly business agendas, subtly disguised in the scent of ‘patriotism,’ offering unfounded insinuation and speculation,” he wrote in a note on Twitter. He did not mention the process to nominate a secretary of state and didn’t respond immediately to an email seeking comment.

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, the island’s non-voting representative to the U.S. House, is also considered a possible replacement. In an emailed statement, Gonzalez said she has not been approached about the position, but is was “aware of the speculation” of the names being mentioned as possible candidates.

“In my case, nobody has contacted me or talked to me in regards to that,” she said.

On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered for a salsa celebration of Rossello’s resignation and a further cleaning of Puerto Rico’s political house. Neither Rivera Schatz nor Gonzalez are acceptable choices, according to Rosa Seguí Cordero, spokeswoman for the Citizens Victory Movement, a political group formed in March that has been active in the protests.

“The people of Puerto Rico hope that whoever succeeds Rossello in power will be someone who is not marked by corruption and who can stabilize the constitutional crisis we face,” said Miguel Ángel Rosario Lozada, a historian at the University of Puerto Rico. “A change in Puerto Rican political culture is beginning to happen. The people have realized the political power they hold.”

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