Dominican Republic's women rise to the occasion

It was pitch black at 3am yesterday when Robertina Perez, a 55-year- old woman, lined up to vote for the next president of the Dominican Republic.

"I wanted to make sure I got my vote in. The country needs a change," she said after standing outside the San Cristobal music school - ballot station 107A - for six hours.

A new voting system aimed at eliminating the traditional fraud, with women given three hours to vote in the morning and men in the afternoon, appeared to work smoothly.

Ballot box officials spoke of a female turnout of at least 80 per cent, with hundreds of women, many cradling babies, queuing at most stations before the crack of dawn.

Many men began showing up during the morning, saying they simply wanted to admire the line-up of local women.

With longtime president Joaquin Balaguer barred from running for another consecutive term, the question was whether Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, of the social-democratic Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), could win the 50 per cent needed to avoid a two-man run-off on 30 June.

If he falls short, horse-trading by the shrewd 89-year-old Mr Balaguer could tip the balance in favour of Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) in the run-off.

PRD voters were adamant yesterday that Mr Balaguer, in power most of the past three decades at the head of the Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC), was in fact supporting Mr Fernandez rather than his party's own candidate, Jacinto Peynado, because the latter was a distant third in opinion polls.

With the PRSC's votes added to those of the PLD, Mr Fernandez, a 42-year- old lawyer, could defeat Mr Pena Gomez in a run-off.

"Fernandez sold his soul to the devil, Joaqin Balaguer," shouted a Pena Gomez supporter outside a polling station in the town of Bani.

"That's false. You have no proof," replied Felipe Sanchez, wearing the purple badge of a PLD polling observer.

Results are expected today. The last presidential election was in 1994 when Mr Balaguer beat 59-year-old Mr Pena Gomez by only 30,000 votes. The latter, who is vice-president of Socialist International, claimed massive fraud, saying up to 200,000 of his supporters had been prevented from voting in the election.

Foreign observers and the American administration supported the allegations and Mr Balaguer was forced to agree to a shortened, two-year term as president and not to run for office again.