By Ezequiel Abiu Lopez
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, Mon. July 6, 2020 (Reuters) – Millions voted in a closely fought presidential election in the Dominican Republic on Sunday, defying a coronavirus outbreak that had delayed the vote and forced the leading candidate to briefly suspend campaigning after falling ill with the disease.
Voters wore face masks and sometimes face shields and coveralls too. Polling stations, which closed at 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), provided antibacterial gel for people to disinfect their hands before casting their ballots. But electoral observers said they saw many lapses in social distancing.
The election will determine who will tackle the COVID-19 outbreak and its impact on the Caribbean’s largest economy, heavily dependent on a tourism industry leveled by the pandemic. Preliminary results will be published starting at 8:30 p.m. (0030 GMT Monday), electoral authorities said.
Polls suggest the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) is set to lose power after 16 years, as criticism it has mismanaged the outbreak, infighting, corruption allegations and inequality overshadow a strong economic performance.
The PLD’s candidate, former Public Works Minister Gonzalo Castillo, 59, has been trailing Luis Abinader, 52, of the opposition Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM). Both parties are centrist.
President Danilo Medina, 68, was ineligible to seek re-election, having served two consecutive terms. He failed to win sufficient backing for a constitutional change to run again.
With a tight race expected, Abinader may not get the absolute majority needed to win. Results are expected late on Sunday or on Monday and a runoff, if necessary, would be held on July 26.
“Tonight, I will be president of all Dominicans,” Abinader wrote on Twitter on Sunday shortly after casting his vote.
The country of 10.4 million, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, is also holding parliamentary elections even as coronavirus cases hit record daily highs. Four months after the first reported cases, there are now more than 37,425 cases and 794 deaths.
Critics say the government did not act quickly enough, reopened the economy too soon last month and is too slow with testing.
ELECTIONS POSTPONED FROM MAY
Abinader had to suspend campaign appearances for a while after testing positive for the coronavirus last month. He says he has recovered.
After postponing the elections from May, the government would have had to amend the constitution to postpone them again.
Some voters were nervous about whether the balloting would go smoothly after municipal elections in February were suspended mid-vote. Officials at the time said there had been a glitch in the electronic voting system, but some Dominicans suspected foul play.
“We hope that it all goes well and that the will of the people is respected during the vote,” said Luis Tito, a voter in the capital, Santo Domingo.
Some Dominicans abroad could not vote because of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
The ruling party was seriously weakened after former President Leonel Fernandez, 66, broke away to form a splinter party in October. As a candidate, he is polling a distant third.
In a twist, however, his wife, Vice President Margarita Cedeño, has remained with the PLD and is running on Castillo’s ticket.
Under the PLD’s leadership, the Dominican Republic has achieved 7% annual growth over the past decade. But the country has dropped 38 places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index during that time to 137th out of 180 countries.
(Reporting by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney)