Dominican President Wins a Third Term
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LinkedinDiggFacebookMixxMySpaceYahoo! BuzzPermalinkBy MARC LACEY
Published: May 17, 2008
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Dominicans who went to the polls on Friday had been given chickens, poured beer, promised new homes and even handed cash during a spirited frenzy of campaigning. But President Leonel Fernández won a third term in office largely as a result of a campaign gift to the populace that dwarfed those of his six opponents: a shiny new subway system.
“It’s something for all of us,” said Francia Catalina Peña, 71, who stood outside one of the downtown stations, a glass and granite structure that juts from the ground at an odd angle. Her vote went to the man she calls simply “Leonel.”
Mr. Fernández’s campaign slogan was “Pa’lante,” Dominican slang for onward, and his giant public works project was rushed to completion to allow him to offer free rides before the polling. For a while he even drove the subway train, the first in the Caribbean outside of Puerto Rico.
Opponents said the $710 million used to build the nine-mile subway line, which happens to roll through the struggling neighborhood where Mr. Fernández was born, could have been better spent on the country’s poor.
“All that money that went for this should have gone here,” said Eddie Urenya, 55 and unemployed, rubbing his belly. “It’s nice, but is it needed?”
Perhaps not. But many Dominicans said they saw the project, which still had not opened officially, as a sign of the country’s progress. And in a country where corruption is all too common, others argued that at least the money was not pocketed.
“It’s true that it’s a lot of money, but it’s a project for the people,” said Ramona Hernández, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of New York.
Mr. Fernández grew up in the Bronx and maintains strong ties there. “Leonel grew up in New York and has a fascination with the place,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University in Miami and Mr. Fernández’s longtime friend and campaign consultant. “For him, the Metro is part of that, a way to make this city modern and boost national pride.”
Early returns Friday night showed that Mr. Fernández appeared to have garnered more than 50 percent of the vote and clearly would not need to enter a runoff election. His main opponent conceded late Friday.
Mr. Fernández has been widely credited with steadying a country that he inherited in economic crisis. He was first elected in 1996 and then returned to the presidency in 2004, as banks collapsed, inflation skyrocketed and waves of Dominicans headed to the ocean in boats to seek better lives in the United States.
Mr. Fernández’s chief competitor, Miguel Vargas, an engineer, was public works minister in the last government. The two men battled during the campaign over which of them would drag the Dominican Republic back to its troubled past.
Mr. Fernández, 54, whose Dominican Liberation Party vastly outspent all rivals, sought to link Mr. Vargas with the problem-plagued presidency from 2000 to 2004 of Hipólito Mejía, who left the country near collapse.
And Mr. Vargas, 57, representing the Dominican Revolutionary Party, raised the specter of the last president to win two consecutive terms, Joaquín Balaguer, a strongman who rigged elections, jailed opponents and stuck around for decades, leaving office in 1996.
“We have seen the harm that re-election has done,” Mr. Vargas said at a recent election rally.
Mr. Balaguer’s legacy prompted the country in 1996 to bar sitting presidents from serving again, a law that was changed again in 2002 to allow two consecutive terms.
Mr. Fernández has made no secret of his desire to amend the Constitution to lift term limits altogether, a controversial notion in a country with a history of dictatorship.
Even with his apparent victory, the Dominican Republic faces entrenched problems, despite an economic growth rate that has approached 10 percent in recent years. Global food prices are on the rise, blackouts are still a way of life for much of the capital and unemployment hovers around 15 percent. On top of that, a building boom and a steady influx of tourists have not changed the fact that a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
“Life is hard,” said one of those poor people, Sando Chere, 34, who sells flavored ice on the street and planned to vote for an opposition candidate to stir things up. “None of the politicians, not one of them, really understand that.”