Balaguer accused of fraud in poll

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JOAQUIN BALAGUER, the near-blind octogenarian who has ruled the Dominican Republic for 20 of the last 28 years, declared himself the 'virtual victor' in Monday's presidential elections, but opposition candidates and observers suggested the poll was seriously flawed.

Mr Balaguer, 87, who can barely see, hear or walk, staged a turn-around to lead by around 43 per cent to 41 per cent over the main opposition candidate, Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, with close to 80 per cent of votes counted. Mr Pena Gomez, a 57-year-old black former mayor of Santo Domingo, who led in early returns, demanded a recount and said 200,000 of his supporters, enough to swing the overall result in an electorate of 3.2 million, had been prevented from voting.

Mr Balaguer said undecided voters had swung the result in favour of his Social Christian Reform Party (PRSC). The opposition countered that the reason they were 'undecided' was that they did not exist. 'There have been many irregularities, if not outright chicanery,' said an official American observer.

Race rather than ideology had become the central focus in a nation where 16 per cent are pure white descendants of the Spanish conquerors and 11 per cent pure black descendants of African slaves, with the rest mixed race.

The election had taken on added significance since the Spanish-speaking nation has become a serious loophole in the US economic embargo of Haiti. Dominican army officers, who have increasingly been able to control Mr Balaguer, have ensured that Haiti is receiving up to 50 per cent of its fuel needs.

Mr Balaguer played the racial card, pointing to Mr Pena Gomez's part-Haitian extraction. Dominicans, including blacks, feel superior to poverty-stricken Haitians, many of whom cross the border to cut sugar cane. Mr Balaguer's government cut or scrambled cable and satellite transmissions from foreign networks on polling day, forcing Dominicans to call relatives abroad to find out how the results were going. The news black-out also caused widespread rumours that the US had invaded Haiti.

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