Foreign Policy Blogs

The Dominican Election – Llegó Danilo

Dominican Republic presidential candidate Medina and his wife Candy wave as they attend the closing rally of Medina's presidential campaign in Santo Domingo. Source: REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

This past Sunday’s presidential election in the Dominican Republic culminated a campaign full of color, passion, and energy. The campaign contrasted with American races in that it focused on personal differences between the two men vying for office; policy differences were minute and less relevant. I visited the DR in September last year on business, and though the election was 8 months away, it was impossible to pass a building in Santo Domingo without seeing a bevy of campaign signs. The newspapers were replete with supporters of Medina (“Danilo”) waving their striking purple flags and backers of Mejía (“Hipólito”) sporting white baseball caps as if in a conga line. In comparison, the US election is under 6 months away, and we are still shaking off the effects of primary season.

The results are in, with Danilo Medina of the centrist Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) winning on 51%. Hipólito Mejía, populist candidate of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) and a former president, received 47%. According to the BBC about 300,000 voters, 5% of the electorate, live abroad, and this constituency was hotly contested given the closeness of the race. Danilo’s winning margin was about 193,000 votes.

The 2012 election is an important benchmark for both the country’s democratization and the trajectory of economic recovery following the 2003 banking crisis. The Dominican President serves a 4-year term, and can be re-elected. Your incumbent is Leonel Fernandez Reyna of the PLD, who has actually been President for 12 years (1996-2000, 2004-2012). Fernandez’ presidency has been a mind-twister, as he is well-liked, and enjoys 60% approval ratings. However, a majority of Dominicans (55%) believe their country is headed in the wrong direction due to rising crime and unemployment near 13%.[1] Fernandez is respected for stabilizing economic growth at 4.5% and investing in infrastructure, such as the Santo Domingo Subway. However, the discontent prevented him from transferring his popularity to Medina, former President of the Chamber of Deputies. This led to an extremely close race with Mejía, who has high personal negatives but a dedicated following within the country’s lower classes.

Mejía’s presidency, from 2000 to 2004, is remembered for the island’s banking crisis and frequent electricity shortages. He uses Hugo Chavez-style campaign rhetoric, epitomized by his slogan “Llegó Papa” (“Daddy is Here”). He once visited a plant owned by one of my clients, and I was told the workers cheered for him like a rock star. However, his past and his slogans centered on redistribution of wealth have scared the daylights out of the business community.

While Hipólito is more charismatic than his patrician-looking opponent, Danilo’s campaign had success portraying Hipólito as temperamental and personally unstable. Hipólito’s gaffes include a threat to remove Supreme Court Justices, later rebuked by members of his own party. On a campaign stop in New York to court expatriate voters, Hipólito also joked that President Obama was “born and raised in Africa.”[2]  Medina advisers used these incidents to remind the public that Hipólito was president during the 2003 banking crisis, when the economy shrank and inflation reached 43%.[3]

(Aside: From an American perspective, it is worth noting that the State Department credits Hipólito with significant advances in US – Dominican relations during this period. His administration signed the CAFTA-DR free trade agreement with the US and five Central American countries, adopted an anti-money laundering law, and even sent troops to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.)[4]

Both candidates ran colorful campaigns, though Danilo has been praised as tactically more astute. To inject some life into his bandwagon, and to try and grab those golden Fernandez coattails, Danilo made current first lady Margarita Cedeño de Fernandez as Vice Presidential candidate. Ms. Cedeño is popular, particularly among women, with whom she has an 83% approval rating (meaning Hipólito probably won men by a strong margin).

For his part, Hipólito tried to ride his trademark “Daddy” slogan and populist bluster such as the following Tweet: “Yo estoy replicando la lucha de David y Goliat, en el orden económico ha sido una desfachatez, pero como David derribaremos al PLD” (“I am repeating David’s struggle against Goliath, in financial terms it has been a rout, but like David we will knock the PLD down”).

Most Latin American elections are pervaded by class divide, but this election stands out due to its interesting contest of personalities. The actual substantive policies of both candidates are quite similar. Hipólito is often associated with huge government spending. A Dominican colleague of mine, who graduated from Dartmouth and comes from an affluent family in Santo Domingo, pointed out that given the healthy economic growth of the Fernandez years, it would be difficult for a victorious Mejía to act as a Hugo Chavez-style state manager. As a matter of fact, public works spending has contributed greatly to recent growth under Fernandez. While my friend didn’t seem worried about a Hipólito win, I know that the business people I have worked with (lawyers, executives, engineers, sales force managers) voted Medina. Conversely, my taxi driver, while acknowledging the PLD’s economic progress, went for Mejía. He cited ongoing government corruption, which Fernandez promised to fight in his inaugural address of 2004.

The campaign is now over, but Washington’s relationship with the DR will keep going with the new leadership. It’s important that the US always take into account the Dominican perspective. Immigration and drug control efforts cross both borders, and about 1.4 million people of Dominican descent live in the US (14% of the DR’s current population). This is why long voting lines for the Danilo / Hipólito duel were found in Washington Heights, Manhattan.


 

[1] http://www.greenbergresearch.com/index.php?ID=2720

[2] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-18/medina-capitalizes-on-gaffes-ahead-of-dominican-republic-vote.html.

[3] Hanke, Steven H. “The Dominican Republic, Resolving the Banking Crisis and Restoring Growth.” Foreign Policy Briefing. CATO Institute. July 20, 2004.

[4] http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35639.htm

 

Author

Hunt Kushner
Hunt Kushner

Hunt Kushner is a John C. Whitehead Fellow with the Foreign Policy Association. He currently works in Corporate Development with Ports America Group, the United States' leading port terminal company. Prior to this, he worked for 6 years at Deutsche Bank in the Corporate Finance and Mergers and Acquisitions for Latin America Group. In his 6 years at Deutsche Bank, Hunt worked on mergers and equity offerings for companies across Latin America in sectors such as energy, real estate, transportation, and banking. Hunt graduated from Yale University in 2006 with a BA in Political Science.

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