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The Dominican Republic votes on Sunday. Here’s what to know

The Dominican Republic is days away from a general election that will see voters elect new lawmakers and the president as they weigh the nation’s economy and security.

Among those seeking the Caribbean nation’s highest office on May 19 are the current president, a former president, and a mayor. If no presidential candidate receives over 50% of the vote, a second round will be held on June 30. Here’s a look at the candidates and issues:

President Luis Abinader promises ‘the change continues’

The Dominican Republic’s current president, Luis Abinader, is seeking re-election for a second term that would keep him in office until 2028. The 56-year-old economist and businessman first assumed the presidency in 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic – following in the footsteps of his senator father, a three-time presidential candidate.

Leading the ballot of the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) with his slogan “The change continues,” the popular leader is now promising four more years of economic growth and stability. During his first term from 2020 to 2024, the Dominican Republic established a new record in the tourism industry, with more than 10 million tourists visiting the island in 2023.

Experts now expect Abinader to focus on the priorities of his first term, expanding on development, reform, and the fight against corruption. He has promised reforms for the National Police, health sector, and education.

Abinader’s government has shown a commitment to addressing long-standing challenges in the energy sector. But the World Bank says the Dominican Republic has more work to do in increasing transparency, accountability, and efficiency in the sector; continuing with the diversification of the energy matrix among others.

“Abinader has a first rate and well-coordinated economic team,” says economist and former Dominican ambassador to the US, Bernardo Vega. But Vega notes that increased losses in the electric distribution system – and a resulting increase in external debt – have not reflected well on his administration.

Abinader’s handling of a spiraling political and social crisis in neighboring Haiti has also had mixed reviews. For voters living close to the border, the question of whether measures like deportations and closing the country’s border to Haiti have been effective in insulating the Dominican Republic from shocks in Port-au-Prince will be top of mind, according to political analyst Rosario Espinal.

During his 2020 campaign run, Abinader promised to fight corruption, and later appointed what he described as the country’s “first independent”  attorney general.

 Critics argue that his administration’s anti-corruption push focused disproportionately on members of the Dominican Liberation Party, which held power for many years before Abinader’s election.

Nevertheless, experts say the crackdown on corruption, along with his handling of the pandemic, are widely seen as achievements.

Former President Leonel Fernández seeks re-election – for the fourth time

A familiar face to voters will be Leonel Fernández, 70, who has already held the Dominican presidency three times: from 1996 to 2000, from 2004 to 2008 and from 2008 to 2012.

Fernandez is most known modernizing the Dominican Republic’s state institutions and justice system, including the constitutional reform that led to the 2010 Constitution, according to experts.

One of his major contributions was during his first term when Fernandez privatized the energy distribution sector and sold shares to private investors in the electricity companies that until then had been owned by the government, according to Vega.

The ex-president is also recognized in the Dominican Republic for advancing and building national infrastructure, such as the subway system that transformed the capital city of Santo Domingo. As a result, Fernandez’s presidencies had a major impact on tourism in the eastern region, experts say.

But many voters will also likely remember that government corruption ran high during his 12 years as head of state, Vega says.

Today, Fernandez heads the ticket of the Force of the People party, which he founded in November 2019 after losing the party primaries of his former party, the Dominican Liberation Party.

Recently, Fernandez has promised to push forth public policies aimed at reducing poverty, the construction of decent homes, better education, comprehensive health, and citizen security, among others.

His platform has focused on inequality in the country, with “calls for wealth redistribution and social justice,” according to Americas Quarterly. The five-time presidential candidate has also reportedly said he would back a new United Nations peacekeeping mission to Haiti.

Abel Martínez: From prosecutor, deputy, mayor to trying to win the presidency

Abel Martínez, 51, is a Dominican politician, educator and lawyer with a wide-spanning career in public service. Most recently the mayor of Santiago until last month, Martinez got his start as deputy prosecutor in capital city Santo Domingo, and then as a prosecutor in Santiago in the 1990s.

He later became a deputy to the country’s National Congress, serving three terms from 2002 to 2016 and presiding over the Chamber of Deputies for six years.

Martinez is focused on heightening tech across multiple sectors, per Americas Quarterly, as well as strengthening the country’s prison system and surveillance at the border with Haiti.

Martinez is focused on ending hunger and poverty, better education for students and teachers, and fighting crime and citizen safety.

The youngest candidate running for president also campaigns against illegal immigration, especially of Haitians.

Crime and safety and inflation on the ballot

Crime and safety are among the biggest concerns of Dominicans in this election, according to several surveys, although government data indicates that crime has decreased in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2023, with the homicide rate falling by 30.2%.

Since June 2023, the US State Department has maintained a Level 2 travel advisory for the Dominican Republic and recommends tourists exercise increased caution due to crime.

Pablo Flores resides in Santo Domingo and has his own business, a mini market. At one point, rampant crime forced him to temporarily shutter the business, he recalls. Today, for fear of being robbed, he has taken his own precautions; a fence protects the entire perimeter of his small business.

“If I don’t take care of myself, who is going to take care of me? Crime must go down because it’s very high,” says Flores.

Hand-in-hand with street crime are the Dominican Republic’s economic woes.

According to the World Bank, over the last two decades, the Dominican Republic has been one of the fastest-growing economies in Caribbean.

Yet the drivers of this exceptional growth appear to be reaching their limit due to low productivity growth in recent years, insufficient human capital to meet the needs of the business sector, climate change-related disasters, and distortions in key markets, including the inefficient allocation of tax exemptions, according to the World Bank.

And while the Dominican economy grew by 4.9% last year, high inflation rates in both 2022 (8.8%) and 2023 (4.8%) have taken a toll on the population’s quality of life.

Yoely Escarlante, a mechanic, says he is struggling to support his four children, and keeps his small workshop in Santo Domingo open rain or shine.

There are days when he can earn up to $100 (between 5,000 and 6,000 Dominican pesos) in a day, according to his calculations. But some days, he doesn’t earn a dime, he says.

The economic situation is also of great concern for Ney Segura, a public transportation driver. “The money just doesn’t cut it,” he says. In his view, “the poor are poorer.”

More than 40% of Dominicans are economically vulnerable and are at risk of falling into poverty due to climate-related impacts and economic crises, according to the World Bank. Likewise, gender gaps in jobs and wages, shorter working lives, and higher unemployment and unpaid roles contribute to increased poverty among women in particular, it says.

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