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#3712: Social democrat wins Dominican election (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

     By Isabel Garcia-Zarza

     SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, May 18 (Reuters) - A lifelong
leftist who has pledged to put a more human face on his country's economic
boom was declared winner of the Dominican Republic presidential election on
Thursday after the other two main candidates accepted his victory.
     With almost all results from Tuesday's election counted, Hipolito
Mejia of the centre-left Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) appeared to be
a hair's breadth short of the 50 percent of the votes plus one needed to
win an absolute majority and avoid a second round vote next month.
     But in a surprise move, his closest rival, Danilo Medina of the ruling
Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) announced on Thursday that for the sake of
the country he would not contest a run-off vote on June 30 -- leaving Mejia
to take over from outgoing President Leonel Fernandez.
     The third placed candidate, 93-year-old former president and legendary
Latin American patriarch Joaquin Balaguer had already said he accepted
Mejia's win.
     The Central Election Board (JCE) officially announced Mejia as winner
of the election on Thursday evening.
     As it did so, not all the votes were counted, but the figures made
plain that Mejia would have been extremely close to an absolute majority,
with the other two main candidates splitting the rest of the vote almost
     With 99.92 percent of the votes counted, Mejia had 49.87 percent of
the vote, while Medina had 24.9 percent and Balaguer, running for his
eighth term in office, had 24.6 percent.
     Mejia, whose supporters have been celebrating his victory since
Wednesday, will take over from a president whose liberalising reforms have
given the Caribbean nation of eight million people an economic growth rate
of more than 7 percent a year, the fastest expanding economy in Latin
     Mejia has pledged more social spending and a review of privatisations
carried out by Fernandez, which attracted a wave of foreign investment but
were viewed by critics as mishandled.
     Striking a chord among voters who had been critical of Fernandez's
policies and felt sidelined by the economic growth, Mejia, 59, had emerged
as clear favourite to win before Tuesday's vote but then apparently just
failed to clinch an outright victory.
     Medina's announcement on Thursday morning dispelled fears the election
could turn into an ugly political spat.
     "We have decided, to avoid creating problems in the Dominican
Republic, to recognise the victory of the PRD and allow the JCE to declare
the PRD winner," he told a news conference.
     "The gap the PRD has ahead of the second position would make a second
round into a tortured road, affecting social peace and could have enormous
problems for the Dominican economy," he said. Medina, a 47-year-old
economist, had largely based his campaign on a pledge to continue the work
of Fernandez.
     Mejia, who had been strongly criticised by the PLD on Wednesday for
proclaiming victory before the results were in, thanked Medina for his
"sensible position."
     The country's electoral law calls for a second round between the two
best placed candidates if nobody emerges outright winner from the first
vote, but waives this second vote if one candidate backs down.
     Balaguer, who has been president seven times over a total of 22 years
and whose political career dates back more than 50 years to the 1930-61
dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, had apparently decided not to lend the
support of his conservative Social Christian Reform Party to Medina in a
second round.
     As the vote count slowed to an agonizing pace on Wednesday, both Mejia
and Medina visited the home of Balaguer, who had run for his eighth term in
office although he is blind, can barely walk and suffers various other
     The election was closely watched by national and foreign observers and
Thursday's agreement by political leaders not to let the results degenerate
into a political scrap will have caused them relief.
     The Dominican Republic has a history of fraudulent elections, and
Balaguer was forced to end his last term early after widespread suspicion
clouded his 1994 election win.