The Outcome of the Dominican Republic General Elections
Administering a General Election during COVID-19
The Dominican Republic was the first country in the Western Hemisphere to conduct presidential and congressional elections during the Covid-19 global pandemic. It did so after its national electoral authority, the Central Electoral Board (Junta Central Electoral, JCE) consulted with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to formulate standardized sanitary protocols (JCE Resolution 53-2020) for implementation during the election, as outlined below:
- Sterilizing all polling stations;
- Wearing of masks and surgical gloves by polling station officials;
- Wearing of masks and hand sanitizing by all voters entering and exiting polling stations;
- Social distancing by six feet while in line to enter and while inside polling stations; and
- Wiping down of all polling station surfaces, voter ID cards, and markers used to fill paper ballots.
While the above list of sanitary protocols suggests a matter-of-fact process, one cannot overstate the organizational effort and expense undertaken by the JCE to purchase and distribute protective materials to polling stations across the country and disseminate a carefully crafted communications strategy before the elections that would inform and reassure voters of appropriate sanitary protocols on Election Day so they would turn out to the polls. The implementation of these measures demonstrate the solemn responsibility the JCE assumed to mitigate contagion during the electoral process.
The Dominican voters had to assume their own level of responsibility in complying with sanitary protocols, which they did for the most part. Adhering to the social distancing protocol was perhaps the most difficult due to the layout of some polling stations, where maintaining distance between voters and polling station officials, as well as among the congregations of political party representatives and voters outside the polling stations, was problematic. Another significant consideration was the impact of compliance with sanitary protocols on the time needed to cast and count each vote, especially as voting hours were restricted to between 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Considering that the July 5 general elections followed on the heels of the national government’s June 30 easing of shelter-in-place restrictions, Dominican public health officials are concerned there may be a spike in Covid-19 cases on July 14 or July 19—following the respective 14-day incubation periods. The effectiveness of JCE’s sanitary protocols, and Dominican voters and polling station officials’ compliance with them, will soon become evident.
Clearly, there are many lessons to be learned from the JCE experience as the United States prepares to conduct its own general elections on November 3, 2020. However, the fact that in the United States each state administers its own electoral process injects an additional concern, given the wide disparity among states in implementing epidemiological guidelines, as well as unpredictability regarding the rate of cases in each state come Election Day—all of which could conceivably impact voter turnout.
The Election Outcome and Its Implications
The Dominican Republic experienced a seismic political shift on election night. Once all ballots were tabulated, the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana, PLD) was handed an overwhelming defeat, nullifying any need for a runoff election on July 26.
The Presidential Election
Luis Abinader—the presidential candidate for the opposition Modern Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Moderno, PRM)—won the presidential election by a sizeable 15.06 point margin, capturing 52.52 percent of the total vote, with PLD presidential candidate Gonzalo Castillo placing second with 37.46 percent. Abinader won 24 of the 32 provinces (including the National District) as well as among Dominicans who voted abroad. Gonzalo Castillo won in only eight provinces, as illustrated in the map below. This was a major victory for Abinader, who had placed second in the 2016 presidential election with only 34.98 percent of the vote.
Figure 1: Presidential Election Outcome by Province
Although former president Leonel Fernández placed third as the candidate for the Force of the People (Fuerza del Pueblo, FP) party, with 8.90 percent of the vote, he did succeed in establishing himself as an important political force in the country with prospects for further political gains if other elected PLD members align with him in the future.
As for voter turnout, the pandemic clearly affected the numbers at home and abroad—with many foreign governments prohibiting expatriate Dominicans from voting to avert the risk of further Covid-19 spread in their respective nations. Thus, overall voter turnout registered at 55.29 percent—well below the average of 70.40 percent during the past three presidential elections (2008, 2012, and 2016). However, given that the election took place during a pandemic, voter turnout was higher than anticipated, signaling voter resolve to bring about political change.
The Senate Election
As in the presidential election, the PRM swept to victory in the Senate races, capturing 19 of 32 Senate seats—as illustrated in Figure 2—granting it a simple majority and enabling it to pass ordinary laws in the upper chamber.
Figure 2: Senate Composition (2020-2024)
Note: PRM, Partido Revolucionario Moderno (Modern Revolutionary Party); PLD, Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (Dominican Liberation Party); PRSC, Partido Reformista Social Cristiano (Social Christian Reformist Party); FP, Fuerza del Pueblo (Force of the People); BIS, Bloque Institucional Socialdemocrata (Social Democratic Institutional Bloc); DxC, Dominicanos por el Cambio (Dominicans for Change).
The PRM won in the most-populous centers—Santo Domingo, the National District, and Santiago—in alliance with Dominicans for Change (Dominicanos por el Cambio, DxC). The PLD won just five senate races—from a total of 28 between 2016 and 2020. However, three of the five senator-elects are loyalists of former president Fernández—Felix Bautista, Franklin Pena, and Dionis Sanchez—which will make the PLD bloc in the Senate even weaker than it originally appeared.
The Chamber of Deputies Election
The PRM captured 90 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, 6 votes short of the 96 required to obtain a majority in the 190-seat Chamber of Deputies (which consists of 178 provincial representatives, 5 national, and 7 representing Dominicans abroad). The PLD won 75 seats, a hard-to-win 21 further votes short of a majority.
Figure 3: Chamber of Deputies Composition (2020-2024)
Note: The majority of political parties nominated candidates in alliance with other parties. PRM, Partido Revolucionario Moderno (Modern Revolutionary Party); PLD, Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (Dominican Liberation Party); FP, Fuerza del Pueblo (Force of the People); PRD, Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (Revolutionary Dominican Party); Partido Reformista Social Cristiano (Christian Social Reformist Party); FA, Frente Amplio (Broad Front); APD, Alianza para la Democracia (Alliance for Democracy); PHD, Partido Humanista Dominicano (Dominican Humanist Party); PLR, Partido Liberal Reformista (Liberal Reformist Party); PRSD, Partido Revolucionario Socialdemocrata (Revolutionary Social Democratic Party); PPC, Partido Popular Cristiano (Christian Peoples Party); PCR, Partido Cívico Renovador (Civic Renovator Party).
At best, the composition of the Chamber of Deputies presents a tough challenge for the Abinader administration as it seeks to advance its legislative agenda; at worst, the composition, as it stands, could lead to frequent legislative gridlock.
The elected senators and deputies will assume office on August 16, 2020, when they will elect their respective leaderships—including a president, vice president, and two secretaries per chamber.
The PRM will not be as legislatively powerful as the PLD was during the past eight years, when it enjoyed a two-thirds majority in both chambers. With a simple majority in the Senate and six votes short of it in the Chamber of Deputies, the PRM will have to horse trade to pass ordinary laws as well as the more consequential organic laws—such as the budget, the economic-financial regime, public planning and investment, and constitutional amendments—which require two-thirds of both chambers. The PRM’s numbers in the legislature will not only restrict the number of bills that it can pass, but also the boldness of its legislative agenda.
The Challenges Facing President Abinader
While President-elect Luis Abinader will start his presidential term on August 16, 2020, with a clear mandate, the makeup of the legislature will require him to ensure party discipline within the ideologically diverse PRM as well as to reach across the aisle to garner requisite votes to advance his legislative initiatives. Thus, should Abinader follow through with his pledge to form a coalition government, he may be able to govern more effectively.
He will still, however, inherit an economy that had already experienced a steady decline in GDP even before Covid-19. GDP growth has fallen from 7.0 percent in 2018 to 5.1 percent in 2019.
Figure 4: Annual GDP Growth, plus Q1 2020 (Percentage, Interannual Variation)
Although the economic impact of Covid-19 began to be felt in March 2020, it still harshly impacted first-quarter GDP growth figures, which registered at 0 percent growth in relation to the same period in 2019. The country’s thriving tourism industry (hotels, bars, and restaurants) was most affected, registering a devastating 17.4 percent drop and transforming Punta Cana, with its normally bustling streets, into a ghost town. The construction industry was the second-most impacted, with a 3.2 percent drop.
The yet-to-be-released figures for the second quarter of 2020 will undoubtedly paint a much gloomier picture, thus indicating the daunting challenge awaiting Abinader.
A Summary of Luis Abinader’s Platform Principles
His aspirational campaign platform, “A Country for Its People”—which promises expansive change to benefit all Dominicans and not just the privileged few—is a mixture of guiding principles coupled with specific policy proposals:
- A more inclusive economic model promoting equitable distribution of income;
- Dispersing political power away from the executive branch and breaking with clientelistic structures to advance the rights of all people, not just the party faithful;
- Increasing safety by addressing the root causes of crime and advancing prevention and police reform;
- Curtailing widespread impunity and corruption by appointing an independent attorney general and advancing transparency and accountability; and
- Tackling gender discrimination by championing gender equality and rights.
This platform, however, was conceptualized before the onset of Covid-19. The reality Abinader faces once in office will be enormously different. His principal challenge will be to determine how best to reactivate the economy during and after the pandemic.
The implications and constraints of Covid-19 very quickly transformed a well-intentioned platform to obsolescence, simply because of what is feasible and politically viable in the new pandemic reality. Abinader will have to forgo the customary celebrations that accompany presidential victory, pare down his overly ambitious platform to a few priorities, and expend his political capital to increase the likelihood of achieving those priorities. The stakes are high, and the margin for error is slim. Hence, the cabinet appointments he makes to implement these essential priorities will be particularly crucial.
Given the present reality, President Abinader has asked Héctor Valdez Albizu to remain as governor of the Central Bank to ensure continued confidence in the Central Bank and its monetary policy management. The president will also have to support the countercyclical extractive sector, whose tax revenues will help offset the economic downturn unleashed by the pandemic, and support agricultural production and increase its export potential. He will also have to figure out creative ways to reactivate the vital tourism sector—decimated during the past four months—which employs many Dominicans but whose recovery depends on external factors.
Although Luis Abinader will assume office in the midst of a heated U.S. presidential campaign season, the Trump administration and Congress should send a senior-level bipartisan delegation to his August 16 swearing-in as acknowledgement of Abinader’s reprioritization of the Dominican Republic’s commercial and bilateral relationship with the United States, particularly given that outgoing president Danilo Medina had pivoted away from the United States and toward China.
The winner of the U.S. presidential election will have an opportunity to strengthen the trade, investment, and diplomatic relationship with this strategic nation, which has traditionally served as an intermediary for Venezuela and Cuba (considered a proxy of China and Russia), and for Haiti—with which it shares a 376 kilometer land border.
Bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for expanding U.S. economic, security, and diplomatic engagement in the Dominican Republic will depend partly on whether Abinader restores diplomatic relations with Taiwan, as encouraged by the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019 and enacted into law in the United States on March 26, 2020.
Abinader’s July 10 announcement that Roberto Álvarez will serve as his foreign minister bodes well for U.S.-Dominican relations. Álvarez is familiar with Washington—he studied at the city’s Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities and represented the Dominican Republic at the Organization of American States. Abinader’s election presents a unique opportunity for stronger, more prosperous U.S.-Dominican Republic economic and strategic ties.
Armand Peschard-Sverdrup is the CEO of Peschard Sverdrup International and a senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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