Sat, May 17, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Fernandez favored to win Dominican Republic poll

AP , SANTO DOMINGO

Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez has led the nation out of economic crisis and turned the capital into a huge construction zone, gains that were expected to win him a third term in yesterday’s elections.

Despite widespread concern about long-serving politicians in a country with a painful history of strongman rule, polls showed Fernandez was likely to win at least 50 percent of the vote against six challengers and avoid a runoff next month.

Fernandez, a lawyer who grew up in New York and has warm ties to the US government, has overseen a flurry of spending on roads, universities and the Caribbean’s first true subway, even though a quarter of the country still lives below the official poverty line.

“The man has initiative,” said Julio Amable Seveno, a 59-year-old welder from Santo Domingo. “To help people ... you should create opportunity, and he has.”

The strongest challenger is Miguel Vargas, a construction company owner from the center-left Dominican Revolutionary Party, which has portrayed Fernandez as a would-be caudillo.

“We have seen the harm that re-election has done,” Vargas said at a Wednesday rally.

In 1996, Congress bowed to international pressure and banned presidential re-election — forcing out president Joaquin Balaguer, who had dominated the top office for decades while jailing critics and rigging elections. Balaguer served several interrupted terms for a total of 24 years starting in 1960.

Lawmakers amended the constitution in 2002 to allow re-election and Fernandez, who was also president from 1996 to 2000, could be the first to serve consecutive terms since then.

Both leading parties support free trade and conservative Catholic social values. Both pledge to hold down food prices and to reduce power blackouts with investments.

The economic crisis in the early 2000s blew away a quarter of the Caribbean nation’s economy. Several large banks collapsed and inflation hit 30 percent, forcing a devaluation of the peso and prompting many to flee on rickety boats to Puerto Rico and Florida in search of work.

Unemployment officially is still nearly 16 percent, but the IMF says Fernandez brought the economy under control with the aid of some US$695 million in IMF loans.

Today, cruise ships arrive at a new port in the capital and designer golf courses have sprung up along the Caribbean coast.

“Leonel is a president who thinks about the future and progress, instead of going backward,” said 48-year-old Aleida Ramirez, whose dry cleaning shop is just outside a stop on the new subway, expected to open later this year.

Fernandez pushed through the 14km project, which had an initial cost of US$710 million — more than 2 percent of gross domestic product — saying it would modernize Santo Domingo.

The capital is a stronghold of his center-right Dominican Liberation Party and home to a third of the country’s 9.5 million people.

Public works projects have transformed the capital into a bustling construction zone, where the rumble of jackhammers competes with blaring merengue and salsa music.

But Vargas supporters said the projects have done nothing to feed their families.

“He wants to make everything here big and New York-style,” said 27-year-old Ana Virginia Custodio, an unemployed mother of two in the capital’s working-class Villa Consuelo neighborhood. “Well, who can eat a highway? Who can eat a subway?”

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