by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — President Danilo Medina squeaked into his first term in a close election in 2012, and soon faced violent protests over his party's handling of the economy. He was barred by the Dominican Republic's constitution from running for s second straight term.
Four years later, a lot has changed. The country's GDP growth of 7 percent is the best in Latin America and the Caribbean. The opposition that almost triumphed in 2012 against his Dominican Liberation Party is now divided. And Medina's supporters in Congress amended the constitution to allow successive presidential terms.
Polls indicate the president is cruising toward re-election, and he may even win more than 50 percent in Sunday's vote and avoid a runoff.
It was enough for Medina to declare his coalition "invincible" while addressing supporters at a recent rally.
"We have gone far, but we know that we can go much farther," he told voters in recorded messages that went out in what are apparently the first robo-calls, or recorded phone messages, used in the country during a presidential election.
Anger over higher sales taxes and university fees to help close a budget deficit when he came into office has largely faded. Many say they are pleased with public spending that has included the construction of about 2,500 new schools as well as improvements to roads and drainage in the flood-prone nation. The government also draws praise for expanding the school day and providing two free meals a day for students.
Altagracia Santana, a mother of four, praised the government's spending on education, including a program that allowed her to take free courses to be a tailor at a government institute. "There are a lot of places where Danilo has fixed things," she said.
Medina faced one of the most significant challenges of his administration when the Constitutional Court, ruling on a long-simmering controversy, decreed in September 2013 that Dominican-born descendants of people considered to have entered the country illegally, most of whom were of Haitian descent, were not entitled to citizenship.
The decision prompted outrage among other Caribbean nations and human rights groups and prompted fears of mass deportations. The government responded with a residency program that granted about 250,000 people legal status. An estimated 300,000 didn't apply or didn't qualify and thousands have moved across the border to impoverished Haiti.
The president was embarrassed in February when one of his main campaign advisers, Joao Santana, was taken back to his native Brazil along with his wife to face corruption charges in a widening political scandal there. He was not, however, accused of wrongdoing in the Dominican Republic.
Medina, a 64-year-old economist by training and career technocrat, is also personally popular for a Dominican politician, said Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist at Florida International University who has done polling for Fernandez and is writing the former president's biography.
"People see Medina as an engaged guy," Gamarra said. "He does surprise visits, is hands on and doesn't travel with a large entourage."
Medina faces seven opponents in the first round. The leading challenger is Luis Abinader, a businessman who has never held elective office but ran for the vice presidency in 2012 as part of a different opposition coalition that came close to victory.
Abinader, 48, has said he would double payments for a system of social programs that provide payments to nearly a million poor families. He also says he would raise wages for the National Police and armed forces as well as the minimum wage for the whole country and reduce crime, a principal concern in the country.
While all that has some appeal, it hasn't been enough to knock out support for the incumbent, Gamarra said. "Is there dissatisfaction with the government? Yes, of course there is. Is there a sense of 'Let's throw the rascals out?' No. People want continuity."
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.