On May 15, 2016, voters in the Dominican Republic (DR) will to go to the polls and elect a president, vice-president, National Congress, 20 deputies to the Central American Parliament, municipal councils, mayors, and vice mayors. Such a multi-tiered election creates political competition on the national, constituency, and municipal levels. The last parliamentary elections were held in 2010 and, given that the terms of office are four years, the parliamentary elections should have been held in 2014. However, in a reversion to the pre-1996 electoral calendar, the constitution was amended so that the terms of the current congress were extended by two years and the president, parliamentary, and local elections could occur on the same day, as previously was the case.
This electoral process has also experienced further rule changing in that on April 19, 2015, the Dominican Liberation Party amended the constitution to permit a second term for the incumbent, President Danilo Medina. Medina has been a popular president and his high ratings were cited as the reasons for the amendment. This move caused tensions between Medina supporters and those of Leonel Fernandez, who was posed to run for the office. Fernandez served as president from 1996 to 2000. To complicate matters further, Medina’s Vice President is Feranadez’ wife, former First Lady Margarita Cedeno de Fernandez.
However, both sides agree to adopt the amendment in May 28. The Dominican Republic employs a two-round system for the presidential election, required to winner to obtain over 50 percent of the total vote to be elected.
While the United States Department of State rates the risk of political violence as “medium”, such violence has remained a part of the political picture since the 1960’s. Politics under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo was autocratic and closed. He was assassinated by his own inner circle in 1961. His son, Ramfis, was not strong enough to maintain power. Joaquin Balaguer served as a kind of “co-president” and established a Council of State to conduct the affairs of state and organize elections. Two weeks after it was established, a military coup dissolved it. Then, the coup organizers were themselves overthrown and the Council was re-seated.
Two political groupings emerged in that election, the National Civic Union (UCN) representing the business community and the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), a more left-leaning group founded by Juan Bosch while in exile. The PRD won defeating the UCN by a two-to-one ratio. However, Bosch was being labeled a “communist” prompting rumor of another coup and a strike by the business community protesting the government’s perceived association with communists. In 1963, the military conducted another coup and drove Bosch back into exile. Counter coup plots remained active through 1963 and 1964, with others hatched by forces representing Bosch, the military, supporters of Balaguer, and former PRD members.
Low intensity political violence continued to occur especially after 1978 and the 1980s. Poor economic conditions led to demonstrations and violent street protests by union members against the government. There were 103 such protest movements in 1984 and 293 identified in 1986. Strikes continued to be the predominant form of political protest in 1990 and 1994 elections. In fact, the Latin American Weekly Report states in July 1995, “The Dominican Republic seems to be falling apart at the seams”. Lethal protests by activists demanding higher wages and reliable electricity and the Dominican military continued in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. For example, in 2004, three people were killed and two others were wounded in a shoot-out between supporters of Dominican Liberation Party’s (DPL) candidate at the time, Leonel Fernandez, and those of incumbent Hipolito Mejia. Protests continue over issues of government corruption and public services.
As the US Department of State advises, “Politically-motivated protests, demonstrations, and general strikes occur periodically, particularly during general election’s years. Previous political demonstrations have sometimes turned violent, with participants rioting and erecting roadblocks. And, “Civil unrest has become a common occurrence in the last several years due to the lack of adequate electricity, water resources, and the public opinion from certain groups that the government is not actively protecting the national patrimony. Demonstrations and strikes have occurred outside of Santo Domingo without advance notice and have occasionally turned violent”.
Looking forward to the May elections, this legacy of tension and protest will be embedded in the political landscape. However, there are at least three mitigating factors which may dampen these tensions and protests turning violent. First, the presidential contest as not perceived as close. As a result, the “logic” to employ violence to dampen opposition turnout is somewhat diminished. Second, the diaspora, representing 15 percent of the populations, does not play a conflictive role through rhetoric or funding. And, third, the DR is a religiously and ethnically homogenous country, so tensions generated by these kinds of social cleavages are not present.
Nevertheless, the economic tensions which are motivating the street actions remain a ready instrument for those with grievances against the incumbent. Corruption and a politicized police force create vulnerabilities for selected and unfair enforcement actions to be taken. The country is ranked 103 out of 167 countries on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. And, questions over electoral integrity may also emerge, creating vulnerabilities for post-election protests over the election results. And, the re-introduction of the multi-tiered elections calendar may bring local disputes and grievances in to the electoral landscape.
And, the US Department of State describes the crime rate as “critical”. A high crime rates creates an environment of violence. It states “The country faces the challenge of organized crime, which involves a variety of activities, including drug trafficking and corruption. This situation is exacerbated by the lack of law enforcement resources, poorly paid police officers and unrest in Haiti”.
As a result, while there do not appear to be indicators suggesting wide spread or intense violence; the vulnerabilities are present for incidents between political rivals and street actions motivated by economic, corruption, or electoral integrity issues.
 Fearon, James and David Laitin, Dominican Republic, Stanford University, June 26, 2007, page 10
Jeff Fischer is the Senior Electoral Advisor for Creative Associates International. He has been the lead writer for two USAID-funded publications on best electoral practices in electoral security and electoral security frameworks.