Dominicans elect president amid economic crisis

Monday, May 17, 2004

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Dominicans desperate for relief from a severe economic crisis turned out in massive numbers Sunday to choose their next president in a vote marred by a polling station shooting that left three dead.

A final count was expected late today.

The violence broke out in a line of voters outside a school in the southwestern town of Barahona, when a supporter of President Hipolito Mejia and a backer of his leading rival pulled guns and opened fire during an argument, observers said.

The two men were killed, as was another Mejia supporter who tried to intervene, said Moises Benamor, an observer from the Organization of American States. Two others were hospitalized with wounds, and three were detained for questioning, police said.

Tensions have been rising in the country of 8.8 million -- the second-largest in the Caribbean -- as it suffers its worst economic slump in decades. Under Mejia, prices of staples such as eggs and rice have tripled or quadrupled as the value of the peso has plunged.

"Sales are dead and so are salaries. It's a disaster," said Nancy Espinola, an import company employee who said she was voting to get rid of Mejia.

Challenger and former President Leonel Fernandez -- the front-runner according to polls -- has promised to reverse inflation and stabilize the economy. But his critics argue that the robust growth during his 1996-2000 term never trickled down to the poor.

An estimated 70 percent of 5 million registered voters cast ballots.

Roughly the same -- 72 percent -- voted in 2000, chief OAS observer Santiago Murray said.

Other than the shooting, there were no reports of major problems.

Some 35,000 police and soldiers were posted to keep security. Nevertheless, violence is a common during Dominican elections, and five people were killed in the run-up to this year's vote. At least 13 people died in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Casting his ballot, Mejia predicted victory and warned against listening to those who "love to talk about deaths and crisis." He said he was satisfied the vote "is going to be clean."

As Fernandez voted, a crowd of supporters greeted him chanting: "Leonel, without you this country will sink!" He called the shooting an isolated incident.

About 200 international observers were on hand from the Washington-based OAS and other groups. Fraud has tainted voting as recently as 1994, and candidates warned they would be vigilant against any rigging attempt.

The latest pre-election poll showed Fernandez with 54 percent to Mejia's 30 percent, with Eduardo Estrella trailing at 10 percent. The survey by Washington-based Gallup questioned 1,200 people the first week of May and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

If no candidate wins 50 percent, the top two finishers face a second round of voting 45 days later.

While voting in northern Santiago, Estrella predicted a second round and said, "We are the true road to change."

Ahead of the vote, Fernandez's Dominican Liberation Party and Mejia's Dominican Revolutionary Party traded accusations of fraud plots and dirty campaigning. Fernandez lashed out at Mejia for releasing a recording that appeared to contain Fernandez's voice discussing a plan to destabilize the government by pulling millions of dollars out of the country.

Fernandez called it a hoax and said he may sue.

Fernandez has pledged to cut spending while renegotiating much of a foreign debt that has ballooned to $7.6 billion.

Last year, inflation topped 43 percent as a fraud scandal toppled the country's second-largest bank and cost the treasury $2.2 billion.

But Mejia, a former farmer, has won a following with aid programs for single mothers and rural housing. He called his rival an enemy of the poor and blamed a world recession for the foundering of an economy that produces textiles and agricultural products.

Meanwhile, more Dominican boat people are making illegal voyages to wealthier Puerto Rico, children beg on the streets and nearly one-fifth of Dominicans are illiterate.

Those who support Mejia say he inherited the seeds of disaster.

"You can't blame just one politician," said Alberto Borges, 34, a moneychanger. "The past government left him problems."

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