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Old Man keeps hold over Dominican poll haunted by pretenders 'Old Man'

In the Dominican Republic, everybody has a nickname. In today's presidential elections, since "the Old Man" is not running, voters will choose between "the Black Man, the Fat Man and the Lion".

Whoever wins, few doubt that "el Viejito" (the little Old man)", the 89-year-old long-time president Joaquin Balaguer, will still be a force to be reckoned with.

Mr Balaguer may be blind and almost deaf but he is certainly not dumb. Forty-eight hours before the elections, he reshuffled the army and police leadership, installing hard-liners fiercely loyal to him. Appointed National Police chief was long-retired army Major-General Enrique Perez y Perez, a name which still puts shivers up the spines of Dominican leftists.

Maj-Gen Perez y Perez, a former military attache in London, headed the police during a previous Balaguer government in the seventies, an era of executions and "disappearances" by death squads widely believed to have been tied to the police.

In case anyone doubted the significance of Mr Balaguer's move, Maj-Gen Perez y Perez, after being sworn in on Tuesday, said: "so long as Dr. Balaguer is alive, so long as he can put his capacities, experience and efforts at the service of the fatherland, he should continue directing the destiny of the country".

Mr Balaguer named as his army chief Maj-Gen. Hernan Disla Gonzalez, previously head of a special presidential guard.

Opposition candidates regard the appointments as an act of extreme intimidation on the eve of a vote which is seen here as something akin to a revolution. It is the first time in three decades that Mr Balaguer is not on the ballot. Formerly the right-hand man of dictator Gen Rafael Trujillo, he has ruled most of the time since the US invaded the Dominican Republic, fearing "another Cuba", to end a civil war in 1965.

"He's trying to instill fear of repression and abuse but we will not be intimidated," said candidate Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, "el Negro" (the Black Man), tipped to win today's poll.

In considerable doubt, however, is whether Mr Pena Gomez, 59, of the social-democratic Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), will win the 50 per cent of votes necessary to avoid a two-candidate run-off on June 30. Opinion polls showed him scoring around 46 percent, ahead of Leonel Fernandez, "el Leon" (the Lion), of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), with 37 per cent.

Jacinto Peynado, 55, "el Gordo" (the Fat Man), currently Mr Balaguer's vice-president and candidate of the long-ruling conservative Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC), was trailing with only 17 per cent. But few here believe Mr Peynado's likely defeat signals an end to Mr Balaguer's influence.

Many political commentators here believe the shrewd Mr Balaguer, seeing the writing on the wall for his party's own candidate, has been secretly backing Mr Fernandez, a US-educated lawyer and journalist, to keep Mr Pena Gomez from power. Adding Mr Peynado's votes, Mr Fernandez might be able to defeat Mr Pena Gomez in the run-off.

Both Mr Balaguer and Mr Peynado have attacked Mr Pena Gomez as "a communist" and "mentally unstable" but most of all they have played a highly racist card. Mr Pena is the only black among the leading candidates in a country where blacks and mulattos (mixed race) are the majority but the white elite have always wielded the power and influence.

Mr Balaguer regularly implies that Mr Pena Gomez is Haitian. The latter, an orphan, believes his parents were from the Dominican side of the border. The two countries share the island which Columbus discovered and named Hispaniola.

Haitians, many of whom cross the border to work on sugar plantations, are looked down upon and often badly mistreated here. Mr Balaguer's attacks also play on traditional fears here that Haitians will one day try to unite the island.

Campaigning ended at midnight on Tuesday, with yesterday a "day of reflection" - or cooling of passions - before today's vote. For the first time, balloting will be split according to gender. Women will vote in the morning, men in the afternoon. The move is supposedly aimed at making ballot box fraud more difficult though no-one here seems quite sure how.

It was after a widespread perception of fraud in the last election in 1994, which Mr Balaguer claimed to have won by a margin of less than one percentage point, that he was forced by international pressure to agree to new elections within two years and not to run for a successive term. He could, constitutionally, run again in 2000, when he will be 93.