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article imageDominican presidential vote marred by difficulties

By Maria Isabel Sanchez (AFP)     May 15, 2016 in Politics

Long lines, technical difficulties and walkouts by polling staff marred presidential elections in the Dominican Republic on Sunday, a race that incumbent leader Danilo Medina is expected to win.

After some polling centers opened up to two hours late, authorities in the popular Caribbean tourist destination, which is beset by widespread poverty, prolonged voting by an hour.

"Given that in the morning hours there were delay problems, we are giving voters an additional hour to vote," the head of the electoral commission, Roberto Rosario, said.

The delays were due to glitches with electronic equipment and a mass resignation of some 3,000 technical assistants, Rosario said, without giving details on why the workers quit.

Medina, who is favored to beat his seven rivals despite the country's grinding poverty and widespread crime, called the resignations "irresponsible" as he cast his ballot at a school in the capital of Santo Domingo.

"The process is taking place as normal," he said.

Dominican President and presidential candidate for the Democratic Liberation Party (PLD)  Danilo Med...
Dominican President and presidential candidate for the Democratic Liberation Party (PLD), Danilo Medina, casts his vote at a polling station in Santo Domingo during general elections on May 15, 2016
Fran Afonso, afp/AFP

Many polling centers switched to manual balloting due to issues with electronic voting, which is being used for the first time.

"We are overcoming these problems, which are normal," Rosario said.

Earlier, he promised "the most transparent elections in the history of our democracy."

But some voters were disgruntled.

"I got up early because I have to work... I want to vote and couldn't," said Mireya de la Cruz, a tourism worker who queued at a school.

- Poverty a problem -

Medina, who is up against a divided opposition, has an 89 percent approval rating, according to a survey by Mexican consultancy Mitofsky. That makes the 64-year-old the most popular leader in Latin America.

Dominican presidential candidate of the Democratic Liberation Party (PLD) for May 15 election  Danil...
Dominican presidential candidate of the Democratic Liberation Party (PLD) for May 15 election, Danilo Medina (L), greets supporters in Santo Domingo on May 12, 2016
Erika Santelices, afp/AFP/File

"I voted for continuity. Danilo needs another four years to improve safety and work with the schools," Roxana Almonte, a 58-year-old secretary at a school in downtown Santo Domingo, told AFP.

Medina's centrist PLD party has been in power for 12 years in the Spanish-speaking country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with its troubled neighbor, Haiti.

The economy is booming thanks to millions of tourism dollars from foreigners flocking to the country's luxury hotels and beaches. It grew seven percent last year and inflation stood at 2.3 percent.

But 40 percent of the nation's 10 million people are estimated to live in poverty and the unemployment rate is about 14 percent, according to government figures.

"Everything is expensive -- fuel, food," said William Mercedes, a 50-year-old farm worker. "We have a lot of poverty, and there are few jobs."

Critics complain that crime has worsened under Medina and say his party has been in power for too long.

Medina also faces allegations of misusing electoral funds and broad international criticism over policies that discriminate against the Dominican-born children of Haitian migrant workers.

- A landslide victory? -

Surveys indicate that Medina will get around 60 percent of the vote, enough to win the election outright.

His nearest rival, social democrat Luis Abinader, has 29 percent support, the surveys showed. He is hoping to force Medina into a run-off.

Dominican presidential candidate for the Modern Revolutionary Party  Luis Abinader  greets a support...
Dominican presidential candidate for the Modern Revolutionary Party, Luis Abinader, greets a supporter as he arrives to vote at a polling stationduring general elections in Santo Domingo on May 15, 2016
Erika Santelices, afp/AFP

Many of Medina's supporters tout the state of the economy and improvements in education as his major accomplishments.

When Medina was elected in 2012 he was supposed to be limited to one four-year stint as president. But he passed a reform in 2015 that has allowed him to run for reelection.

The 48-year-old Abinader belongs to the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), a break-off faction of the formerly powerful Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD).

He has blamed Medina for government corruption and the country's high crime rate.

"We have two options here: democracy or one-party dictatorship," said Abinader, a wealthy businessmen of Lebanese ancestry, at a recent public appearance in a working-class neighborhood.

Some 6.7 million of the Dominican Republic's 10 million residents are eligible to vote, with some 3,000 observers on hand to monitor the process.

Also being elected are 32 senators, 190 lower house deputies and local officials, with candidates from 26 different parties participating.

The country's more than 16,000 polls were due to close at 2300 GMT, one hour later than originally planned.

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