The Dominican Republic will hold general elections on July 5. Voters will cast ballots to choose their next president and renew the totality of senate (32) and deputy (190) seats. The Caribbean country is the first to go through with elections since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the outbreak, authorities rescheduled the vote from its original May 17 date. The risky gamble could backfire as the number of confirmed cases continues to grow. To date, the country of 10.6 million borders 30,000 confirmed cases and 700 deaths—making it one of the worst hit nations in the region. Luis Abinader, the leading opposition candidate, recently tested positive for COVID-19.
After more than a decade in power, profound divisions within the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) point to a change in government. A public rupture between the party’s main caudillos, sitting president Danilo Medina (2012-2020) and former president Leonel Fernández (1996-2000 and 2004-2012), promises to split the vote in favor of Luis Abinader, a moderate from the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM). While polls favor Abinader, the possibility of a second-round election scheduled for July 26 remains open.
Divisions within the PLD: A family affair?
The Fernández-Medina rivalry goes back years. While both politicians were once allies, and have been able to overcome bumps in the past, the split ahead of this year’s election has inflicted wounds that won’t heal quickly.
Medina was a key cabinet member during Fernández’s first presidential term from 1996 to 1999. In 2000, Medina ran for the presidency only to lose against challenger Hipólito Mejía from the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). In 2004, Medina was Fernández’s campaign manager for his second term run. The former president defeated incumbent Mejía by a landslide with 57 percent of votes in a first-round contest. Once more, Fernández appointed Medina as a high-ranking cabinet member. Medina quit the post in 2006 to challenge the president in the PLD’s primary, Fernández easily won with 71 percent of votes. A bitter Medina stated that Fernández relied heavily on clientelism to secure the nomination.
Although Medina kept a low profile in the wake of the primary, he still supported his ally-turned-rival in the 2008 election. The move suggested that he would seek the nomination again in the future. In 2011, Medina won the peledeísta (PLD) primary with an absolute majority of votes. However, the party primary was marked by internal tension, as Fernández touted running for a third consecutive term. In an official gathering, the president handed the PLD leadership 2.2 million signatures from voters endorsing his reelection. Fernández stopped his push to become the primary candidate after failing to harvest enough backing within the party, which already backed Medina’s nomination.
The two factions united by proclaiming Margarita Cedeño, the First Lady—married to Fernández since 2003—as Medina’s vice-presidential running mate. However, the truce between the PLD heavyweights was brief. Following his 2012 victory, the incoming president criticized his predecessor, famously stating that he received “a briefcase full of bills” (un maletín lleno de facturas) from the previous administration. In his view, the economic mismanagement from Fernández’s presidency delayed his public works program.
Notwithstanding the inherited financial burden, Medina’s government oversaw impressive levels of growth. From 2012 to 2016, the Dominican Republic’s economy expanded, on average, 5.6 percent. Vice-president Cedeño played an active role by investing in education and developing a nascent welfare state that contributed to reducing poverty from 40 percent in 2012 to 30.9 percent in 2016. Medina’s popularity soared, and for a moment, he became the “most popular president” in Latin America. Unsurprisingly, the Medina-Cedeño ticket easily won reelection in 2016, with over 60 percent of votes.
The good times, however, weren’t meant to last. Whereas Medina’s continued managing remarkable growth rates—averaging 5.8 percent from 2016 to 2019—corruption and the president’s ambitions clashed with voters’ concerns. In 2018, Medina trailed his predecessor’s steps and declared his intention to run for a third consecutive term. The decision implied the need for constitutional reform. Medina’s hopes faced immediate backlash from the opposition, Fernández’s faction within the PLD (who had made clear his intention to seek the nomination—yet again), and civil society.
Although Medina pressured the legislature to allow his reelection, as Fernández in the past, he failed to garner enough support while protests grew in numbers. In July, the president announced he would not seek a third term. The decision triggered a race for the PLD to nominate a presidential candidate. The primary held in October was another showdown between pro-Medina and pro-Fernández forces. Medina backed Gonzalo Castillo, the 58-year-old minister of public works and communications. Castillo, nicknamed “El Penco,” competed against Fernández in a disputed primary race. Castillo won by less than 30,000 votes. Fernández, in turn, cried foul play and challenged the results. Days after the primary, Fernández quit the PLD and declared he would seek the presidency running on a newly-created party, the People’s Force (FP).
Fernández’s decision profoundly impacted the prospects for renewing the PLD’s mandate. While the Fernández-Medina rivalry dragged on for over a decade, both veteran politicians remained loyal to the party. That unity, in turn, avoided vote-splitting on election day. As a result of Fernández’s move, 27 deputies and two senators quit the PLD to join the FP ranks. The pro-Medina faction retaliated by recruiting Cedeño—who supported Fernández in the primary—as Castillo’s vice-presidential running mate. That Cedeño sided with Castillo, who has never held elected office, shows how deep divisions run within the PLD.
A change in the government?
Medina’s failed presidential ambitions, added to the public quarrel between the sitting and former president, have not fared well with voters. Many have turned their backs on both politicians to support Luis Abinader, a 52-year-old businessman with no previous experience in public office. Abinader is a close ally of former president Hipólito Mejía (2000-2004). In 2014, when Mejía broke with the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) to form the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), Abidaner followed suit. As the PRM candidate, Abinader unsuccessfully challenged Medina in the 2016 election, where he barely garnered 35 percent of votes. Now, the presidential hopeful has united the opposition, which, for the first time in over a decade, has a real chance of winning.
This year’s local election upset sheds light on the possibility of change. While the Dominican Republic usually holds elections concurrently, it celebrated local polls ahead of presidential and legislative contests in February. In the eyes of presidential hopefuls, the vote gained further relevance because it revealed how voters stood with the PLD, PMR, and the newly-created FP. However, the election resulted in a national scandal. Severe irregularities in the electronic vote-counting process led to its suspension. Public outcry and massive protests forced a do-over in March. In the end, the PMR won a plurality of votes (40.7 percent). The PL landed second with 33.6 percent, and Fernández’s FP performed poorly, winning only 3.4 percent of the vote.
With elections around the corner, polls give a clear advantage to Abinader over Castillo. What remains unclear is whether there will be a second-round vote. Some polls state that the results will reflect those seen in March. Yet, more recent polling predicts that Abinader is either close to or will outright win in the first-round election. If there is a second-round vote, Fernández’s endorsement will turn crucial—since the former president is expected to perform better with voters at the national level in comparison to March’s local elections.
Regardless of whether there is a second-round contest, it seems clear that voters need a breath of fresh air. The never-ending feud between Fernández and Medina, added to their apparent shared intent of remaining in power almost indefinitely, points to the need for new faces in the country’s politics. While Abinader’s ties to Mejía make him fall short of a full renovation, voting the PLD out of office is a starting point.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello