Voters in the Dominican Republic are set to defy rising coronavirus infections to choose a new president in an election that could end 16 years of unbroken rule by the centre-left Dominican Liberation Party (PLD).
Opposition candidate Luis Abinader is favourite in Sunday’s election, having taken a commanding lead in opinion polls despite being forced to abandon his campaign after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Abinader, a 52-year-old businessman, recovered sufficiently to close out his campaign at a rally on Wednesday.
“Change is coming and the PLD is going,” he promised a crowd of hundreds of his supporters, allowed to gather after the government eased a lockdown.
A Gallup poll gives Abinader, from the opposition Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) more than 53 percent of voter intentions, 20 points ahead of the ruling PLD party’s Gonzalo Castillo. Another poll gives Abinader a slimmer 12 point margin.
Castillo, a former public works minister, is standing for the PLD because outgoing President Danilo Medina cannot seek another term under the Republic’s constitution.
“The Dominican people should remember that a president is elected in one day, but the consequences last for four years,” Castillo told a crowd of his supporters in the town of Monte Plata.
Former president Leonel Fernandez, 66, trails in third place with 8.6 percent. Fernandez ruled for a total of three four-year terms between 1996 and 2012.
Three other candidates are contesting the presidency from minor parties.
The Dominican Republic has a poor record on corruption, ranking 137th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index.
It has been particularly key issue in this election cycle after protests in recent years over the involvement of some local officials in a Latin America-wide fraud scandal involving the Brazilian construction Odebrecht. The corporate giant has admitted to doling out $92m in bribes in the Domincan Republic in exchange for winning public works contracts.
Meanwhile, election’s campaigning has been unlike any other in the tourist-magnet Caribbean republic’s history, overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the country’s population of 10 million hard.
The Republic – which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti – has registered more than 34,000 infections from the coronavirus, with more than 800 deaths, according to an AFP news agency tally.
The outbreak forced Medina’s government to declare a national lockdown, banning large public gatherings and shutting borders – a massive economic blow to one of the strongest growing economies in the region.
A state of emergency was lifted only this week as parties made a final drive for votes.
The election date has already been pushed back from May 17 but will go ahead “come what may” on Sunday, Julio Cesar Castanos, the president of the Central Electoral Board, has said.
The authority’s advice to voters: “Put your mask on and get out and vote.”
Despite health protocols being put in place at polling stations, Health Minister Rafael Sanchez Cardenas said it would be “practically impossible” not to have news outbreaks of COVID-19.
“We have to get beyond this line of 5th of July, hoping that there won’t be an overflow of cases and that we will be able to respond,” the minister said.
The pandemic has already hit polling by the Republic’s 600,000 overseas voters – representing almost 8 percent of the electoral roll.
Most live in the United States, Spain and Puerto Rico, where polling has been taking place. However, expatriates in Italy and Panama have not been authorised to vote because of coronavirus restrictions in place there.