SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — Dominicans formed orderly lines at voting stations across the country Sunday as they chose a new president from a field that includes a brash former president whose last term ended with an economic crisis and a favored technocrat from a ruling party that has spent the past eight years on a public works spending spree.
There were no major problems reported though several people told The Associated Press that backers of ruling party candidate Danilo Medina were offering people payments of about $15 to vote for their candidate or to withhold their vote for his opponent. Medina campaign organizers denied the allegations, which have circulated in the country for weeks.
Medina is hoping to succeed President Leonel Fernandez, who spent billions on such major infrastructure projects as a subway system, hospitals and roads to modernize a country that is the top tourist destination in the Caribbean but remains largely poor.
Many voters concede that Medina, a 60-year-old stalwart of the ruling Dominican Liberation Party, isn't a particularly exciting candidate, but said they are eager for a stability in a country with a history of economic and political turmoil.
"I don't want major change," said Amauris Chang, a 59-year-old shop owner. "I want the country to grow and I want it to be peaceful and I think that's a common idea among people who are civilized."
There are six candidates running for president but Medina's main opponent is former President Hipolito Mejia, who was defeated in his bid for a second term in 2004 because of a deep economic crisis, sparked by the collapse of three banks.
Mejia, a garrulous populist renowned for verbal gaffes, and his Dominican Liberation Party have a devoted following. His supporters have sought to portray some of the public works spending as wasteful and benefiting backers of the president, and insist he wasn't to blame for the economic crisis.
"The crisis could have happened to any government. It had nothing to do with Hipolito Mejia," said 62-year-old maintenance man Alonso Calcano.
Mejia trounced Medina when they ran against each other in 2000. But several polls ahead of Sunday's vote showed Medina ahead, with enough support to surpass 50 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff.
Rosario Espinal, a leading political analyst of the country, said the vote will largely depend on swing voters who aren't committed to either major party. She said there is a lot of disenchantment with the government, particularly because of high cost of living and lack of good jobs, but it's not clear whether there is enough to overcome memories of the crisis at the end of Mejia's term.
"The question is whether they are more tired of the current government or more fearful of what might happen under Mejia," said Espinal, director of the Latin American Studies Center at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Ramona Hernandez, director of the Dominican Studies Institute of the City University of New York, said it will be in part a generational struggle between those who remember the crisis, which was set off by the failure of three banks and resulted in a nearly 20 percent drop in GDP, and those who don't remember the tough times.
"People between 40 and 60 years old, they haven't forgotten. He has a history," Hernandez said of Mejia. "But he has a chance with younger people."
Besides president, Dominicans are electing a vice president from a field that includes the heavily favored First Lady, Margarita Cedeno de Fernandez, and seven members of the Chamber of Deputies who will represent people who have settled overseas. Tens of thousands are expected to cast ballots in places with large numbers of Dominicans, including New York, New Jersey, Florida and Puerto Rico.
Politics in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, largely revolves around the PLD and Mejia's Dominican Revolutionary Party, or PRD. Both have leftist origins but have come to embrace free trade, generally pro-business policies and close ties to the U.S. The PLD is considered center-right, largely because it's in power, and the PRD is said to be center-left but the differences largely turn on personality, loyalty and patronage.
The presence of the first lady is something of a wild card. Martha Jimenez, a 29-year-old who sells lottery tickets, said she has always supported the PRD but this year she will support the Dominican Liberation Party of Cedeno because the first lady helped her sister, who was badly burned in an accident, get a skin transplant.
"I don't know how to thank her. She has given us so much," Jimenez said.
Both presidential candidates have proposed to increase spending on education and to do what they can to create jobs in a country of 10 million people that is largely dependent on tourism and where unemployment is officially about 14 percent, though the vast majority of workers are in the poorly paid informal sector. The typical salary for those who do have regular jobs is around $260 per month.
The Dominican Republic has also become an important route for drug smugglers seeking to reach the U.S. through nearby Puerto Rico and there are widespread concerns about the influence of drug trafficking. They have also traded accusations of incompetence and corruption.
Mejia, a 71-year-old who refers to himself as "Papa" and styles himself as a man of the people, has also enlivened the campaign with some of the verbal missteps for which he has long been famous. Most recently, he joked that house maids are prone to steal meat from the houses where they work so they can give it to their boyfriends, not a wise comment in a country where more than half the population works in the informal section, many of them as maids.
Mejia "talks a lot of nonsense," said Maria Altagracia Ramirez, a 26-year-old maid. "How could I vote for him? That man is crazy."