Dominicans went to the polls May 20, and as in past years, the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), both founded by the legendary Juan Bosch, dominated the political scene. Danilo Medina of the PLD won the election with 51% of the vote, while the PRD’s Hipólito Mejía, finished with 47%. There is a plethora of political parties in the Dominican Republic, and the PLD was helped to victory with the votes received by its coalition partners. The party made electoral alliances with 13 minority or emergent political parties, which, in total, delivered 13.5% of its votes. The PRD, on the other hand, received only 4.8% of its votes from its six electoral allies.
Bosch, the founder of both contending parties, had been elected to the presidency in 1962, in the country’s first free election following the assassination of longtime dictator Trujillo, who ruled the country from 1930 until 1961, when he was gunned down in an attack orchestrated by his domestic enemies, acting with the help of his former sponsors the U.S. government. As electoral democracy gradually returned to the country, an increasing number of political parties sought to win the presidency, though the process was initially dominated by the PRD and by the conservative Reformist Social Christian Party (PRSC), the party of the ex-Trujillo aid, Joaquín Balaguer.
With the rise of the moderate left-wing PLD as a third strong political party in the 1990s, the two-party model of the 1970s and the 1980s was challenged. The PLD slowly gained the support of the Dominican electorate, bucking Washington’s disapproval of Bosch’s ideology and political affiliations. A three-party system, composed of the PRD, PLD, and PRSC, remained in place until the decline and death of Balaguer at the turn of the century; since then the PRSC has survived in electoral politics only by forming electoral alliances with one of the two major parties.
Leonel Fernández Reyna rose as the undisputed leader of the PLD after Bosch retired from the political scene in the 1990s. Fernández ran three times as the presidential candidate of the PLD, in 1996, 2004, and 2008, winning on all three occasions. Over that period, only Mejía was a successful PRD candidate, bringing the party to the presidency in 2000.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this year’s election was the role played by Dominicans living in the country’s sizable diaspora. A 2010 amendment to the Dominican Constitution created seven new congressional seats for deputies representing Dominicans who live outside the country. Voters living abroad are now divided into three districts, all containing a large number of Dominican citizens. The first district includes the northeastern United States and Canada (though in 2012 Canada did not allow the organization of electoral sites for Dominicans to vote); the second is made up of Miami, Puerto Rico, and Panama. The third and most geographically diverse district consists of Europe, Venezuela, and the Caribbean islands. For the first time, voters living abroad had the opportunity to elect candidates of their own who were to serve in the Dominican Chamber of Deputies.
The 2012 election generated a great deal of enthusiasm in those districts—even more than usual—because members of the community abroad were not only casting their votes but actually running for office. In Dominican neighborhoods in New York City, for instance, it was difficult to miss the Dominican elections. New York is home to over 600,000 Dominicans, and many are involved in politics, both in the Dominican Republic and in the United States. Over 50 Dominicans have been elected to U.S. public office, including 10 to represent New York State and City (two state senators, three members in the State Assembly, and five members of the City Council).
In these recent elections, public appearances of the candidates combined colorful and lively caravans with loud speakers playing merengue and repeating candidates’ slogans, permeated the various Dominican communities. This activity was magnified as the Spanish-language media competed to cover the latest news and controversies related to the elections.
The inclusion of emigrants in homeland politics is the result of years of intense struggle and demands of Dominicans who lived in foreign countries. Indeed, the number of registered voters from abroad, which has more than tripled since the 2004 presidential elections, increasing from 108,000 to over 325,000 in 2012, could have a decisive impact on the elections. If the two major parties are running neck and neck, as most surveys showed in the previous election, the 5% represented by the vote from abroad could potentially choose the next president.
The vote from Dominicans abroad may represent a challenge for future elections in the Dominican Republic. Dominicans have been increasing their participation in electoral politics in the places they live and the fact that now they can run for office in their home country may further intensify their political activism and aspirations.
Ramona Hernandez is Director of the Dominican Studies Institute at the City University of New York and professor of sociology at City College of New York.
Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2012 issue: "Elections 2012: What Now?"