On the eve of the election year 2016 Danilo Medina´s re-election as President of the Dominican Republic seems a sure bet. Pollsters have estimated that he would receive more than 60% of the popular vote assuring him a 30% lead over the main opposition candidate.
However, the most recent poll suggests that his candidature is in free fall. This has multiple reasons.
Medina´s pole position only came at a high price after a showdown with three term former President Leonel Fernandez (1996-2000, 2004-2008 and 2008-2012), both belonging to the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD, all acronyms used are in Spanish). Although in 2015 the Dominican Republic with 4.1% will reach the third highest growth rate in Latin America and the Caribbean (trailing only Panama and Bolivia with 5.8% and 4.6%, respectively), the social distribution of wealth following twenty consecutive years of economic growth is characterized by extreme disparities. According to the World Bank poverty is higher today than it was in 2000. An entrenched economic and military oligarchy and a political establishment dominated by the ruling party are contaminated by greed, corruption and nepotism, while organized crime, drug trafficking and exploding violence have infested the social fabric of the Dominican society and increasingly are destroying trust in its political and also judicial institutions.
When a content and confident looking President Danilo Medina (2012-2016) inaugurated a new cruise ship terminal in Maimon on the northern coast of the island of Hispaniola in November 2015 the future of the tourism industry as well as of the economy in general was looking bright: From January to November 2015 the number of tourists visiting the island rose to more than 4.3 million arrivals, an 8.1% increase compared with the previous year. A construction boom, in particular in the capital Santo Domingo, continues with the construction of more than two hundred apartment towers finished or under way. The PLD governments also heavily invested in infrastructure. During visionary Leonel Fernandez´s tenure as President a modern metro system was built in Santo Domingo, new highways substantially shortened the travel time between the capital and the tourism centers of Punta Cana in the east. Airports and ports were modernized. Danilo Medina, an accountant by profession, focused on the construction of schools and hospitals, and also undertook an effort to re-vitalize the neglected agricultural sector. His surprise visits to projects and farmers´ association earned him a reputation of a down to earth honest broker and highest popularity ratings peaking at over 80% consent of the population. Preliminary projections published by CEPAL in December 2015 estimate GDP growth at 5.2% for the election year (trailing only Panama with 6.2%).
However, despite the series of success stories the Dominican Republic has remained one of the most unequal societies in Latin America with the gap in the distribution of wealth between the rich and the impoverished and uneducated masses wider than ever. According to the UNDP Human Development Report 2015 the Dominican Republic is ranking 101st among 188 countries covered (behind Jamaica ranking 99th and in front of El Salvador at 116th position). The employment ratio for the population 15 years and older is 55%. The NGO World Vision estimates that 55% of children below twelve years of age live in situations of poverty and in 67.3% of households are subject to corporal punishment. Critics point out that the National Development Strategy (2010-2030) caters mainly a neo-liberal agenda and, in addition, is not being implemented vigorously.
On the eve of the election year 2016 which will bring presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections as well as elections to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) Danilo Medina is an almost sure bet to be re-elected. His popularity ratings in the more important polls all hover around 60% with a more than 30% lead over the runner-up Luis Abinader of the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), a recent offspring of the traditional opposition party Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). However, it should not be overlooked that Medina had to pay a high price for his new candidature, and his extremely high popularity, mainly among ordinary folks, plummeted in recent months. An inquiry among business leaders gave him only 43% of consent, a downward trend which for a sample of 1,200 voters taken and published on 18 December 2015 seems to be confirmed conceding Medina only 45% against a surging Abinader receiving 33% .
The new constitution of 2012 abolished immediate re-election and was conceived to set the scene for another (fourth) term of the ambitious Leonel Fernandez who already had reined-in his successor by positioning his wife Margarita Cedeno de Fernandez as Vice-President at his side. Fernandez (“the lion”) who also has maintained the presidency of the governing party was the apparent PLD choice to run again in 2016 until –contradicting all his previous promises not to seek a second term- Danilo Medina and his followers decided to propose another constitutional reform in order to make immediate re-election possible again. Heavy artillery was rolled out against Fernandez: In an unprecedented effort the Attorney General, Francisco Dominguez Brito (a former Minister of Labour and ex-PLD senator), launched corruption charges against Senator Felix Bautista (PLD), one of the most important political lieutenants during the Fernandez presidencies and overseeing public procurement. Bautista himself of humble origins in short time had made a fortune in the booming construction business while holding office. The special and highly poisonous tropical mix prepared for Fernandez also included charges related to the alleged funding of his political foundation FUNGLODE with drug money donated by imprisoned, extradited to the US, convicted and later deported drug lord Quirino Ernesto Paulino Castillo.
Following a high noon type political showdown in a highly publicized central committee meeting of the ruling PLD Medina had his way, but not completely: In order to reassure constitutional reform which would pave the way for his new candidature he had to swallow a pact which ensured incumbent Fernandez supporters at all levels their re-postulation as PLD candidates denying many pre-candidates their aspirations to run for political office. An add on to the sinister pact was the alliance with the majority faction of the split PRD under its President Miguel Vargas Maldonado who during the Fernandez presidency is said to have made a fortune with his involvement building the Santo Domingo metro.
However, the damage done to the political culture of the Dominican Republic does not stop here. Neither judicial corruption proceedings against Senator Bautista nor the case brought forward against ex-President Fernandez himself served any further political purpose. A Supreme Court judge installed under the Fernandez government dismissed the Attorney Generals´s case against Bautista. For obvious reasons Dominguez Brito who had earned a reputation as a fighter against corruption did not appeal to the Plenary of the competent Supreme Court chamber. In an unprecedented move he declared that he has lost confidence in the Supreme Court of Justice presided by Mariano German. The case against Fernandez himself had already been filed earlier on.
Only days following Dominguez Brito´s declaration raising doubts as regards the impartiality of the judiciary he was proven right: In November 2015 a network of (so far) five judges was uncovered who were accused by the Attorney General´s office of having negotiated sentences and accepted bribes by organized crime in order to set free criminals accused of homicide and drug trafficking. Two of those judges are now in preventive detention. This new high profile case of judicial corruption is considered to be only the top of an iceberg. Analysts emphasize that the appointments of new Supreme Court judges in 2012 in the first place served the purpose to protect PLD incumbents and to assure their impunity against possible charges of illicit enrichment and corruption. Neither has the establishment of a Constitutional Tribunal presided by Milton Ray Guevara lived up to existing expectations.
But worse was yet to come. On 13 December 2015 the PLD celebrated internal primaries for still not agreed candidatures in contested circumscriptions and municipalities which in addition to other incidents and charges of irregularities left two militants dead and fourteen injured. This devastating balance for the PLD once again highlighted the alleged relations between organized crime and drug trafficking and sectors of the governing party. The deplorable homicides precisely occurred in Santiago de los Caballeros, the second largest city of the country, and Barahona on the southern coast which are infested by drug related crime. On 15 December 2015 a business associate assassinated the popular mayor of Santo Domingo Este, Juan de los Santos (PLD), and his body guard, sergeant de Jesus. De los Santos was also President of the Dominican Federation of Municipalities (FEDOMU).
Civil society organizations like Citizen Participation, Citizen Power and the respected Institutional and Justice Foundation (FINJUS), have stepped up their campaigns against rampant crime, corruption and impunity. However, these campaigns have not yet gained the momentum and sufficient public support which in the case of Guatemala led to the collapse of a corrupt government a few months ago. On the contrary, demonstrations against corruption were met with brute force by the National Police in Santo Domingo. Although several political analysts consider that with the PLD government in free fall five months left until the multi-level elections in May 2016 might be enough time to build up momentum and end twelve consecutive years of PLD governments, this scenario still seems unlikely.
The objective to root out corruption and impunity cannot be achieved with the traditional political parties (PLD, PRD), or the PRD-offspring PRM. The recently announced alliance between the PRM and the Reformist Social Christian Party (PRSC), which was the ruling party during Joaquin Balaguer´s tenure, will not suffice to separate the PLD from power. While the PRSC under the presidency of Quique Antun commands considerable talent and due to an intensive campaign among youths in the course of the year 2015 re-invented itself resurfacing from political oblivion according to some pollsters independently might obtain around 6%, it chose to negotiate posts and power with the PRM. This decision taken by the PRSC leadership leaves the progressive new political party Alliance for the Country (AP), led by former prosecutor Guillermo Moreno, without any viable future allies (with the exception perhaps of the small Democratic Option (DO)– Alliance for Democracy (AfD) led by the first female presidential candidate in the Dominican Republic, Minou Tavarez Mirabal, and Max Puig). Minou Tavarez is the daughter of Manolo Tavarez Justo, former leader of Movement 14 June (1J4) killed in the mountains of Quisqueya in December 1963, and Minerva Mirabal, assassinated by the Trujillo dictatorship three years before. The congresswoman left the PLD earlier. AP is running on an anti-corruption and civil rights platform and following its recognition by the electoral authorities quickly has moved up in polls from around 2% to almost 9%. It is widely being expected that AP will reach double digit figures by early January 2016. The right-wing National Progressive Force (FNP) headed by another PLD dissident, Vinicio Castillo Seman, caters to business interests and the anti-Haitian vote, and surprisingly was put in third place in the latest poll with 7% of the vote.
To resume what the author expects during the forthcoming election year 2016 and beyond, it is sustained that re-election of Danilo Medina (PLD) is almost inevitable. If a strengthened opposition alliance between PRM-PRSC could force him into a second round of presidential elections, this could be considered a success. However, it seems unlikely that the entrenched economic, military and political nomenclatura will summon enough good-will and strength to clean up the political and judicial institutions infested by illicit enrichment, organized crime and corruption, and end impunity. The social fabric of the Dominican society will continue to disintegrate. Homicide rates which in 2014 stood at 22.1 (per 100.000 habitants) might keep rising approaching Central American levels. Immediate reforms, among others, should include the long delayed adoption of the law banning fire arms and a law on political parties and party financing. On the probable background of another PLD government (2016-2020) the situation, in particular towards the end of the term, might turn extremely conflictive. At present, the electoral perspectives of the possible third force AP rather seem to be a long shot at 2020.
It is highly desirable that long-term Election Observation Missions (EOM) by the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union (EU) and the Carter Center be sent and be given a strong mandate.