Dominican Republic voters head to polls, incumbent Abinader the favorite

By Thomson Reuters May 19, 2024 | 6:02 AM

SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) – Voters in the Dominican Republic head to the polls on Sunday to cast ballots for the next president and members of parliament in an election widely seen as a referendum on the hugely popular incumbent and anti-corruption crusader, Luis Abinader.

Up to eight million eligible voters will decide which candidate is best suited to take on the fallout from the humanitarian crisis next door in Haiti, tackle graft in government and tame inflation and inequality in the Caribbean’s top tourist destination.

President Luis Abinader, a former businessman and leader of the Modern Revolutionary Party, has staked his claim on his adept handling of the COVID-19 crisis. His hardline stance on Haiti and a crusade against corruption have helped give him a strong leg up over his two main opponents.

Three-time former President Leonel Fernandez, of the People’s Force party, has painted his opponent as weak on the economy and crime, while the Dominican Liberation Party’s Abel Martinez, a first time candidate, has trumpeted his successes as mayor of the country’s second-largest city. Several others are polling at or under 1%.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held on June 30.

Abinader is the widely held favorite and appears poised for a big win in the first round, thus foregoing a runoff.

The 56-year-old is one of Latin America’s most popular presidents, with approval ratings around 70%, according to a CID-Gallup poll in September. He catapulted the island’s all-important tourism industry to recovery in record-breaking time, returning his country to a predicted 5% growth in GDP in 2024, according to World Bank figures.

But challenges remain. Crime – noted in travel warnings issued by the U.S. State Department – ranks in polls as a major issue for citizens of the Dominican Republic. Many worry that migrants spilling over from neighboring Haiti could further aggravate the security situation.

And while the economy has soared, Abinader’s critics say he has work to do in taming nagging inflation and inequality that have left many behind.

Despite the challenges, observers on and off the island say a recent overhaul of election laws, the country’s first-ever presidential debate in April and the Abinader administration’s anti-corruption drive will help ensure a successful Sunday vote, regardless of winner.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Christian Plumb and Sandra Maler)