How the Dominican Republic’s New President Defeated the Ruling Party

August 11, 2020

Francisco García, a Control Risks Analyst for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, analyses the tectonic shift in the Dominican Republic’s political power…

For the first time since the breakout of the pandemic, a Latin American country went to the polls to decide on its political future. The Dominican Republic’s opposition candidate, Luis Abinader, of the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), celebrated a sweeping victory in the country’s presidential election on July 5th, ending the party in power’s 16-year rule.

These elections took place in extremely unusual circumstances, as 7.5 million Dominicans went to the polls a day after the country hit a record high in daily cases of Covid-19, and five days after pandemic-related restrictions were hastily lifted. It was also a vote between continuity and change: elect the party that had been in power for the last 16 years or entrust a relatively new political party with a majority of candidates having never held elected office.

In the first round and with 52.5% of the votes, Abinader placed himself ahead of the ruling party’s candidate, Gonzalo Castillo of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), and three-time former president, Leonel Fernández (1996-2000, 2004-12). His PRM party also achieved an overwhelming majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Luis Abinader – A new era of leadership

Abinader is a politician, economist and businessman, and founder of the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM). He is part of a family with extensive business holdings in the Dominican Republic, especially in the tourism sector.

After receiving postgraduate degrees at Harvard and Dartmouth, Abinader started his career in politics alongside various other business projects, essentially in tourism and the production of construction materials. He is the executive president of Grupo Abicor, a tourism real estate development company, and vice president of cement company, Cementos Santo Domingo.

High on Abinader’s political agenda since the beginning of 2020 is restoring people’s trust in democratic institutions, the modernisation of the State and the fight against corruption, impunity and clientelism, practices he attributes to the PLD.

His election also entails facing the challenges caused by the pandemic, such as reactivating business productivity and creating new jobs, including in sectors that had become closely associated with the PLD’s pro-business stance, such as mining, oil and gas, and tourism.

Rising anti-PLD sentiment

Luis Abinader’s victory is more reflective of the electorate’s growing discontent with the ruling PLD rather than a pro-PRM feeling.

The two main factors that influenced the election were the PLD’s handling of both the municipal elections in February and the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the party’s deep fragmentation. Having switched from paper-based voting to electronic voting in 2018, the country experienced a series of technical malfunctions with the voting machines during the municipal elections on February 16th,, which quickly enveloped the PLD in a political crisis. The elections were hastily rescheduled to March 15th, which prompted anti-government protests in the capital of Santo Domingo and fierce accusations of potential electoral fraud.

At the same time, the advent of Covid-19 in the Caribbean in mid-March only made matters worse, when quarantine and lockdown measures were met with accusations of authoritarianism directed at President Danilo Medina. When the presidential and legislative elections were also rescheduled from May 17th to July 5th due to the pandemic, the government’s guarantee that they would use paper-based voting and allow international observers to participate did not placate the opposition’s concerns.

President Danilo Medina’s behaviour during the campaign period did not help matters…

This descent into political uncertainty did not come at a time of strength and unity for the PLD. Under Fernández and later Medina, the PLD had consolidated itself as an umbrella party with strongholds in the country’s rural and lower-income regions. However, since 2017 it has been the focus of continued accusations of corruption, favouritism, legislative inaction, and underinvestment in the infrastructure and energy sectors. This is still reflected in the 2020 results, considering the PLD only retained the representation of the country’s poorest provinces, mostly located on the southern border with Haiti: Independencia, Pedernales, Barahona and San Juan.

While accusations of authoritarianism are relatively common in the Dominican Republic, a country that only ended its most recent dictatorship in the 1990s, President Danilo Medina’s behaviour during the campaign period did not help matters. Medina actively campaigned for Castillo, going beyond a mere endorsement, which has led to questions regarding the legality of a sitting president doing this. Castillo’s running mate, Vice-President Margarita Cedeño, a close ally of Medina and Fernández’s wife, has also actively campaigned for Castillo despite the controversy. Coupled with the accusations of corruption and electoral fraud, which the PLD failed to properly address, Fernández’s official departure from the PLD in early 2019 created an image of extreme disorganisation and division.

As the leader of a strong party and having contracted and recovered from Covid-19 during the campaign period, Abinader positioned himself as a unity candidate, willing to handle the pandemic and its economic consequences instead of focusing on party politics. The contrast with the PLD, especially as both parties relied on social media during the campaign period of June and July, was obvious.

Looking ahead

The parties supporting Abinader are all largely pro-business, meaning companies should expect the government to remain actively pro-investment. Abinader himself has ties to the tourism sector in the country’s western province of La Altagracia, where resort hub Punta Cana is located, and has pledged to actively support foreign investment. Handling his relationship with the private sector will also be a key challenge for Abinader, as further quarantine measures become necessary.

One of the challenges facing his government will be the country’s recovery post-coronavirus, considering that the Dominican Republic’s economic growth has historically relied on the services sector, one of which was most hardly hit by the pandemic. Abinader will need to navigate the need for unpopular sanitary measures, along with demands for the long-term reopening of the economy.