Dominican Republic votes for president, members of Congress

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — Dominicans voted across the country and at polling stations around the world Sunday in an election seen as a referendum on a ruling party that has won four of last five presidential ballots and has controlled the Congress for a decade.

The ballot featured a dizzying array of choices, including eight candidates for president, all 222 members of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies up for re-election and thousands of people vying for local offices.

Incumbent President Danilo Medina had 60 percent, with 14 percent of the vote counted Sunday night. Final results were not expected until Monday.

Many people had to wait hours to cast a ballot, largely because of problems with the deployment of new technology to identify voters by their fingerprints in the country of more than 10 million people.

“This is an abuse,” exasperated voter Ana Maria Perez said at a polling station in Santo Domingo where she had been waiting for nearly two hours.

Roberto Rosario, chief of the country’s electoral board, blamed delays on the mass resignations of 3,000 technical assistants and other poll workers a day before elections. Replacements had to be trained swiftly. He did not disclose why the workers walked off the job before the vote.

Later, Rosario extended the time to vote by one hour, ordering that polls stay open until 7 p.m. to make up for the delays. By the original closing time, nearly 51 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, not including overseas voters and polling stations that did not have the new fingerprint system in place.

Medina criticized the “irresponsibility” of the workers who left their posts but said the vote overall was generally going well. He predicted that everyone who wanted to vote would get the opportunity.

“Whatever happens this will be a victory for everyone in the Dominican Republic,” Medina said after voting at a school in the capital.

Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana, heading an Organization of American States observer mission, acknowledged problems but played down their significance. “The important thing is that people are voting,” he said.

Polls forecast that Medina, 64, could take more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff against his nearest competitor, businessman Luis Abinader. That’s due in part to the fact that the opposition is divided and weaker than during the last election, in 2012, which was much closer.

Medina also benefits from an economy that grew 7 percent last year, better than any other country in Latin America or the Caribbean, and increased funding for social programs that have strong popular support. Medina’s government has built about 2,500 new schools, lengthened the school day to provide more classes and promoted literacy and vocational training for adults.

Retired actress Frennes Baez said she was convinced by Medina’s call to stay the course and believed the president deserved another term.

“Voting for another doesn’t mean that things will be better,” Baez said at a polling station in the bustling capital.

Abinader, 48, ran for vice president in 2012 but has never held elective office. On the campaign trail he has vowed to spend more on a system of social programs that provide payments to nearly 1 million poor families. He also says he would reduce crime, a principal concern in the country, and hike pay for police and the military as well raise the national minimum wage.

His backers feel the ruling party, which passed a constitutional amendment letting Medina run for a second consecutive term, has been allowed to amass too much power.

“We’re fed up. The (ruling party) controls everything,” said Rafael de Jesus, a mechanic and father of two who was planning to vote for Abinader. De Jesus also worried that the party has been able to pack the bench with friendly judges, saying: “They want everything.”

If no candidate surpasses 50 percent, there will be a runoff June 26. Electoral authorities say nearly 7 million people are expected to vote including thousands around the world and in the United States, mostly in large Dominican enclaves in New York and Florida.