When is the presidential election in the Dominican Republic

Kleptocrats of the Caribbean - the Dominican Republic before the presidential elections

When hundreds protested in Santo Domingo in February, three men were burying the democracy of the Dominican Republic. Surrounded by waving red-white-blue national flags, they held a black coffin over their heads that read: Democracia. This symbolic declaration of death by democracy was captured by a camera.

The protests broke out after the local elections in February were abruptly interrupted by the central electoral junta (JCE) just four hours after they began. The reason given by the JCE was technical malfunctions in the electronic voting machines. Many suspected fraud. The opposition leader Luis Abinader spoke of "a serious act of violence against democratic rights". President Danilo Medina called it "sabotage". The political opponents agreed: something was wrong. Not for the first time. There were also allegations of fraud during the presidential and congressional elections four years ago. The ruling party had won, the opposition protested.

Hegemony in danger

This time it could turn out differently. Because when presidential and congressional elections take place on Sunday in the Dominican Republic in the shadow of the corona pandemic, most serious polls see opposition candidate Luis Abinader from the Partido Revolucionario Moderno (PRM) in the lead. He could end the long hegemony of the ruling party. The Partido de la Liberación Dominica (PLD) has been in power since 1996 with a four-year break in the early 2000s. Four years ago, Danilo Medina was far superior to Luis Abinader with a historically good result of 61 percent. Medina was considered popular, down-to-earth, close to the citizen. What has changed in the four years?

“Many in the Dominican Republic hope for change,” says the Catholic priest Mario Serrano Marte. They felt betrayed by a corrupt, selfish system. Serrano Marte was part of the citizens' movement “Marcha Verde” against corruption and impunity, which, at its peak two years ago, brought together thousands of Dominicans on the streets. The protests began when it became known in early 2017 that members of the PLD were involved in the cross-border bribery scandal of the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht - but to date none of the accused have been convicted.

"Danilo Medina started with the promise to fight corruption," says Serrano Marte. He did not succeed - on the contrary, he only tied the judiciary more closely to himself. The current index from Transparency International seems to support this thesis: The Dominican Republic is currently 137th out of 180 nations. Only six countries in all of Latin America and the Caribbean do even worse, including states that are democratically almost completely hollowed out, such as Nicaragua and Venezuela.

According to a report by Transparency International, President Medina himself is also brought close to corruption: in 2013, he approved the construction of the Punta Catalina coal-fired power plant with the aim of reducing power outages on the island and providing cheaper electricity for citizens. That was never achieved: the construction time was massively extended, the costs exploded, mainly because a lot of money had seeped away in foreign pockets. Now parts of the power plant are even to be sold.

Internal power struggles

"The scandals have accumulated in the past two years and can no longer be cushioned by the ruling party's positive economic record," says Reinhard Junghanns, who was for many years head of the rule of law program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation . Because under the neo-liberal course of Medina, the economy has usually grown by more than five percent annually and was therefore clearly superior to almost all countries in the region when it comes to prosperity. Medina continued to develop the Dominican Republic, above all as a major tourist destination. The downside is that at the same time the mountain of debt grew by ten percent to over 50 percent of the gross domestic product during his tenure. In contrast, little of the growth has reached the poorer classes. According to the World Bank, inequality in the Dominican Republic is roughly on par with other Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua and Chile. The public education system is ailing, the health system is seen as financially drained.

But the scandals and the inequality, which is hardly decreasing despite growth, are not the only reasons why Medina fell in favor of voters: "The decisive upheaval came when Medina developed the ambition to strive for a third term in office against the constitution", says Reinhard Junghanns. The country's constitution prohibits three consecutive terms. In order to be able to run again as in 2016, Medina tried to change the constitution. But due to internal headwinds and criticism from constitutional lawyers, he ultimately shrank back.

But he succeeded in another coup: in a hurry he built the hitherto relatively unknown Minister Gonzalo Castillo, who is also charged with corruption allegations, as a presidential candidate. In the internal party primaries for the presidency, he surprisingly won against the actual favorite, former President Leonel Fernández. The Organization of American States subsequently issued a report that voiced its doubts about the legality of the result. Ex-President Fernández himself spoke publicly of fraud and without further ado founded his own party, the Fuerza del Pueblo (FP), which, however, comes in third in most polls. President Medina failed with his strategy, says Junghanns: "With his split, Leonel Fernández is making a significant contribution to the current weakness of the PLD."

This was particularly useful to Luis Abinader. He positions himself as a man of change who wants to strengthen the independent judiciary, detach it from the ruling party and thus put an end to corruption. "However, we have learned in the past that we should not place too much hope in a single candidate," says the priest Serrano Marte. He does not expect a turning point from Abinader alone. It is much more important that new faces move into parliament who break up the political monopoly of the PLD. In the local elections at the beginning of the year, which took place a month later after the cancellation in February, that had already been achieved. Serrano Marte gives hope. But one concern remains: the fear of electoral fraud. And then what? Thousands would probably take to the streets again.