Dominicans weigh comeback for brash ex-president

Dominicans formed orderly lines at voting stations across the country Sunday to choose a new president from a field that includes a brash former president whose last term ended with an economic crisis and a technocrat from the governing party that has spent the past eight years on a public works spending spree.

Voting appeared smooth though several people told The Associated Press that backers of ruling party candidate Danilo Medina were offering people payments of about $15 to vote for their candidate or to withhold their vote for his opponent. Medina campaign organizers denied the allegations, which have circulated in the country for weeks.

Franisco Alvarez, coordinating the 3,000 observers of the civic group Citizen Participation, said many reports had come in from around the country of vote-buying by local workers for both the governing Dominican Liberation Party and the main opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party.

"Both the PRD and the PLD, in large measure, have been engaging in this practice," Alvarez said at a news conference.

Still, Roberto Rosario, president of the national Electoral Commission, said that voting had been "massive and peaceful" and that there were no major incidents tainting the vote.

Medina hoped to succeed President Leonel Fernandez, who spent billions on such major infrastructure projects as a subway system, hospitals and roads to modernize a country that is the top tourist destination in the Caribbean but remains largely poor.

Many voters conceded that Medina, a 60-year-old stalwart of the ruling Dominican Liberation Party, wasn't a particularly exciting candidate, but said they were eager for a stability in a country with a history of economic and political turmoil.

"I don't want major change," said Amauris Chang, a 59-year-old shop owner. "I want the country to grow and I want it to be peaceful, and I think that's a common idea among people who are civilized."

Six candidates were running for president, but Medina's main opponent was former President Hipolito Mejia, who lost his bid for a second term in 2004 because of a deep economic crisis sparked by the collapse of three banks.

Mejia, a garrulous populist, and his Dominican Revolutionary Party have a devoted following. His supporters sought to portray some of the public works spending as wasteful and benefiting backers of the president, and insisted he wasn't to blame for the 2004 economic crisis.

"The crisis could have happened to any government. It had nothing to do with Hipolito Mejia," said 62-year-old maintenance man Alonso Calcano.

Mejia trounced Medina when they ran against each other in 2000. But several polls ahead of Sunday's vote put Medina ahead, with enough support to surpass 50 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff. Both men said they were confident of victory after casting their votes.

Rosario Espinal, a leading political analyst for the Dominican Republic, said the outcome would largely depend on swing voters who aren't committed to either major party. She said there was a lot of disenchantment with the government, particularly because of the high cost of living and lack of good jobs, but it was not clear whether that was enough to overcome memories of the crisis at the end of Mejia's term.

"The question is whether they are more tired of the current government or more fearful of what might happen under Mejia," said Espinal, director of the Latin American Studies Center at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Besides president, Dominicans were electing a vice president from a field that included the heavily favored first lady, Margarita Cedeno de Fernandez, and seven members of the Chamber of Deputies who will represent people who have settled overseas. Tens of thousands were expected to cast ballots in places with large numbers of Dominicans, including New York, New Jersey, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Politics in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, largely revolves around the two main parties. Both have Marxist roots but have come to embrace free trade, generally pro-business policies and close ties to the U.S. The PLD is considered center-right and the PRD center-left, but their differences largely turn on personality, loyalty and patronage.

The presence of the first lady was something of a wild card. Martha Jimenez, a 29-year-old who sells lottery tickets, said she had always supported the PRD but this year was supporting the Dominican Liberation Party of Cedeno because the first lady helped her sister get a skin transplant after she was badly burned in an accident.

"I don't know how to thank her. She has given us so much," Jimenez said.

Both presidential candidates proposed to increase spending on education and to do what they can to create jobs in a country of 10 million people that is largely dependent on tourism and where unemployment is officially about 14 percent, though the vast majority of workers are in the poorly paid informal sector. The typical salary for those who do have regular jobs is around $260 a month.

The Dominican Republic has also become an important route for drug smugglers seeking to reach the U.S. through nearby Puerto Rico and there are widespread concerns about the influence of drug trafficking. The candidates also traded accusations of incompetence and corruption.

Mejia, a 71-year-old who refers to himself as "Papa" and styles himself as a man of the people, enlivened the campaign with some of the verbal missteps for which he has long been famous. Most recently, he joked that house maids are prone to steal meat from the houses where they work so they can give it to their boyfriends, not a wise comment in a country where more than half the population works in the informal section, many of them as maids.

Mejia "talks a lot of nonsense," said Maria Altagracia Ramirez, a 26-year-old maid. "How could I vote for him? That man is crazy."