SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Nearly half of Puerto Rico's voters chose the island's commonwealth status over U.S. statehood or independence in a referendum on the Caribbean island's political future.
With 73.1 percent of the votes counted, 592,686 or 48.8 percent were in favor of maintaining Puerto Rico as a self-governing commonwealth in free association with the United States.
There were 560,911 votes, or 46.2 percent, for the island becoming the 51st U.S. state and 51,229 votes, or 4.2 percent, calling for independence.
The vote is non-binding, and the U.S. Congress is not under any obligation to act on the results of the referendum.
Marcos Morell, Secretary-General of the New Progressive Party, which favors statehood, said Sunday evening that the results suggested the commonwealth option would win by 20,000 to 25,000 votes.
Celeste Benitez, who led the campaign to maintain the commonwealth, proclaimed victory for the status quo.
'The one who won today...was the freely associated state,' she said.
Governor Pedro Rossello, of the New Progressive Party, conceded defeat but said he would continue the fight for annexation.
'It is a fight that continues and you have brought that ideal closer than ever before,' Rossello told supporters at party headquarters.
'Now it up to those who the people have given a mandate to make it pay off,' Rossello said in reference to the commonwealth supporters.
Former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, who traveled from Spain to vote in favor of the commonwealth, said Sunday's result was 'an affirmation of 'Puerto Ricanness,' an affirmation of autonomy.'
Hernandez said he considered it important to stop proponents of statehood from presenting a formal request to the U.S. Congress, and called on the U.S. government to respect the outcome of the vote.
'It is a federal responsibility. The one to demand this from is the U.S. president (Bill Clinton), and he should demand it from the Congress,' Hernandez said.
Independentist party leader, Senator Ruben Berrios, was euphoric about his party's 4 percent.
'Our vote was the decisive vote to tell the whole world that this country does not want to be annexed to the United States and also that this country does not want to be the colony of the freely associated state,' he said.
Former Governor Carlos Romero Barcelo refused to recognize victory for the commonwealth because it fell short of 50 percent of the ballots.
About 65 percent of Puerto Rico's 2.3 million eligible voters cast ballots, slightly more than predicted.
Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States from Spain following the Spanish-American war of 1898-1899.
The island, which has one of the highest standards of living in Latin America, continued as an unincorporated U.S. territory until 1952, when commonwealth status was established.