Dominican Republic Election
Ramon Espinosa  /  AP
Miguel Vargas Maldonado, right, presidential candidate of the Dominican Revolutionary Party, greets supporters on Friday.
updated 5/17/2008 5:04:32 AM ET 2008-05-17T09:04:32

President Leonel Fernandez declared victory early Saturday in the Dominican Republic’s national election and pledged to continue pushing forward economic projects that have helped pull the Caribbean nation’s economy out of crisis.

His main rival, center-left construction magnate Miguel Vargas, said he accepted the results. Vargas received 41 percent of the vote, while populist candidate Amable Aristy led a batch of other challengers to hold third place with less than 5 percent.

Fernandez had 53 percent of the vote, or 1.8 million of 3.3 million votes counted as of early Saturday, the Central Electoral Commission said. The commission had not yet declared him the winner, however.

The former New Yorker needs to win at least 50 percent of votes to avoid a run-off. Fernandez said that he interpreted his apparent victory as a renewal of confidence in the Dominican Liberation Party. He said he would continue revitalizing the economy as he has done throughout his most recent term.

Vargas said in a late-night speech that he “accepts and recognizes” the results.

It was not yet clear how many of the country’s 5.7 million eligible voters had cast ballots in any of 13,000 operating precincts.

Economic gains, but challenges remain
A victory would make Fernandez the first Dominican president to be re-elected since the country’s last strongman was ousted 12 years ago — showing many voters have overcome hesitations about long-serving politicians in a country with a painful history of iron-fisted rule.

Fernandez is credited with stabilizing the peso, taming 30 percent inflation and bringing the country back from an economic crisis sparked by a bank collapse in 2003 — along with the help of $695 million in loans from the International Monetary Fund.

But official unemployment is still nearly 16 percent and about a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the government.

Opponents played on memories of former President Joaquin Balaguer, who dominated the top office for decades while jailing critics and rigging elections.

In 1994, Congress finally barred sitting presidents from seeking new terms, a restriction that kept Fernandez from running for re-election after his first term, from 1996 to 2000. Congress lifted the ban in 2002, allowing presidents to run for four more years.

Because candidates were listed alongside the name of each political party that endorsed them, Fernandez appeared on the ballot 12 separate times. Vargas was listed four times and each of the other candidates was listed once.

Dominican citizens also voted abroad in 17 cities in Latin America, Europe and the United States. Voters braved the rain to cast votes in New York, where Fernandez grew up.

In a country where only baseball stirs greater passions than politics, bars and liquor stores were closed in the hopes of preventing violence.

Smooth election, monitors say
Observers from the Organization of American States said the election went smoothly despite isolated incidents of violence. Four people were killed, including an ex-lawmaker and Fernandez supporter who died in a clash Wednesday between partisans.

At one polling station, a pair of neighbors got into an arm-waving debate after casting their ballots.

Adamilka Castro, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher who supported Vargas, said some of her students lack shoes and get their only daily meal at school. “We need to meet our basic needs as human beings,” she said.

Rafael Saldania, her 35-year-old artist neighbor, retorted that Fernandez’s government was on the right track: “Give it four more years; things will get better.”

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