He's 89 and blind, but will he go quietly?

After the best part of 30 years in charge, the last caudillo can still keep them guessing.

Denouncing a multi-million dollar corruption scandal involving customs officers last year, Joaquin Balaguer, president of the Dominican Republic, took the chivalrous approach. He challenged the ringleader to a duel.

"Since offences among men can only be washed clean by blood, I invite the principal beneficiary of the scandal to show up along with the undersigned at 6pm on the 27th, accompanied by their appointed seconds," Mr Balaguer wrote in local newspapers. By the time the 27th rolled around, he had changed his mind. Instead of a duel, he gave a speech to parliament listing details of the corruption scandal without naming names.

The president's aides were relieved. Since Mr Balaguer is blind, almost deaf and 89 years old, they did not fancy his chances at 15 paces. The threat of a duel had merely been an outburst of anger, they said. Others saw it as a melodramatic attempt to veil the fact that corruption is a pillar of the system in the Dominican Republic, a system Mr Balaguer has thrived in for six decades.

On Thursday, the Spanish-speaking nation which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti will hold general elections to find a successor to Mr Balaguer. But will the last of the old caudillos, who has clung to power for the best part of 30 years, allegedly as much by foul means as fair, go quietly?

For the first time in all these years, Mr Balaguer cannot run. After a widespread perception that he stole the last presidential poll in 1994, he was forced to agree to hold new elections within two years and not to run again. Many Dominicans fear, however, that circumstances will be created that allow him to stay on, perhaps by encouraging political violence next week. "Viva Balaguer" posters and graffiti have sprouted around the capital, Santo Domingo, demanding the elections be called off. He has also withheld outright support for the candidate of his Social Christian Reformist Party, his current vice-president Jacinto Peynado.

Mr Balaguer has been a key player in Dominican politics since the 1930s, initially as a close aide of the dictator Rafael Trujillo. The vacuum caused by General Trujillo's assassination in 1961 eventually led to civil war, which ended in 1965 when the US sent in the marines. Those were the days when Washington feared "another Cuba". Mr Balaguer won the presidency with American support in 1966, and has ruled most of the time since. Despite his gradual blindness, he still travels the countryside in a Popemobile- like vehicle with a glass tower, handing out gifts from sweets and bicycles to cash and plots of land.

Ruling mainly by decree - some diplomats nickname him the Wizard of Id after the wily, diminutive cartoon character - Mr Balaguer marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival by building a controversial and cripplingly expensive lighthouse in the shape of a cross. When the towering 10-storey lighthouse was first switched on, lighting up the sea for miles, power dipped across the country - though only in wealthier homes. Since 60 per cent of Dominican families had no electricity, most people did not notice.

Apart from suspected ballot box fraud, Mr Balaguer owes his survival partly to his defence of US interests, notably tourist resorts, sugar plantations and assembly plants. But he irritated President Clinton by breaching the US embargo on Haiti during the recent military rule there. Fuel, food and, allegedly, weapons poured across the border during the embargo.

Opinion polls suggest that Francisco Pena Gomez of the social democratic Dominican Revolutionary Party will finish well ahead on Thursday, but short of the 50 per cent needed to avoid a two-man run off in June. The second-placed Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) could then steal ahead with the support of Mr Balaguer's party, which is far behind in third place.

Whatever the outcome, few doubt that Mr Balaguer will continue to pull the strings. One of his senior aides recently went so far as to suggest that if no candidate won an outright victory in the run off, the caudillo would stay in power.

That would require an exact dead heat among the votes of almost four million people, something that only a wizard could pull off, but if anyone is capable of such a feat, it must be the Domincan Republic's old survivor.

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