August 2, 2019 / 10:00 AM / 18 days ago

With Puerto Rico leader set to quit, successor still unknown

SAN JUAN, Aug 2 (Reuters) - With only hours before Puerto Rico’s disgraced governor was set to step down on Friday, the bankrupt U.S. territory still did not know who would succeed him.

Over a week ago, Governor Ricardó Rossello bowed to 12 days of mass protests sparked by offensive chat messages and said he would resign at 5 p.m. on Friday.

Street protesters vowed to topple the next in line for the job, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, owing to her position in an administration dogged by corruption scandals.

Critical of the federal response to deadly 2017 hurricanes and a federally created board overseeing the island’s bankruptcy, protesters demanded a new governor represent their interests, not those of the U.S. government or Puerto Rico’s political elite.

So when Rosselló tapped a lawyer who worked for the unpopular fiscal control board, Pedro Pierluisi, as his successor, he was rejected both on the streets and by leaders of the ruling party, who had their eyes on retaining power in the 2020 elections.

“The lawyer of Puerto Rico’s No. 1 enemy cannot be in charge of Puerto Rico,” Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (PNP), said on Thursday.

Rosselló nominated Pierluisi as his secretary of state, a position that would put him next in line to succeed the governor, an appointment that requires approval by the legislature.

With $42.5 billion in federal disaster funding allocated to the island, and its bankruptcy the biggest ever in the U.S. municipal bond market, the territory’s political transition is being keenly watched by federal officials and investors.

The PNP-controlled Senate on Thursday delayed a hearing on Pierluisi’s nomination until Monday. That left the island’s House of Representatives to decide his fate on Friday.

House speaker Carlos Méndez told reporters that Pierluisi, the island’s former representative to the U.S. Congress, could still become governor if the House failed to vote on his nomination, or if it confirmed him during a session scheduled for the afternoon.

If the House votes against the 60-year-old attorney, as expected, Vázquez would become governor, Méndez said.

There was also the possibility Rosselló could nominate a last-minute alternative candidate for secretary of state. Schatz has been rumored to want the job, but on Thursday said he had neither asked for the post nor been offered it.

There was talk Rosselló might postpone his resignation until the succession process was resolved.

Independent Senator José Antonio Vargas Vidot urged the legislature to quickly resolve the power vacuum and end the uncertainty and anxiety plaguing the island since protests began on July 13.

“Vazquez’s rejection is clear among the majority of people speaking up everywhere,” Vidot said. “We have to act faster.” (Reporting by Luis Valentin in San Juan Additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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