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Dominicans Look Forward To Mejia

May 19, 2000

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ With a tumultuous election finally decided, Dominicans are hoping Hipolito Mejia can make good on promises to extend the economic boom of recent years to the Caribbean nation’s poor.

The Central Elections Board declared the left-leaning Revolutionary Party candidate president-elect after his opponents, Danilo Medina and Joaquin Balaguer, withdrew Thursday from an expected run-off on June 30.

In a speech Thursday night, Mejia promised ``a government of national unity, a shared government that will rise above the confrontation and partisanship.″

His victory in the race to succeed President Leonel Fernandez came after two days of tension as officials recounted nullified votes to see if they could decipher enough to put Mejia and running mate Milagros Ortiz Bosch over the required 50 percent mark.

With the count virtually complete, Mejia had 49.87 percent of the vote, a hair shy of the 50 percent-plus margin needed to avoid a runoff. Free-market advocate Medina of the governing Liberation Party had 24.94 percent and the conservative Balaguer 24.6 percent.

Mejia, a 59-year-old agronomist who cultivates the image of a down-home farmer, charmed voters with his plain talk and folksy sayings.

``Hipolito will worry about Dominicans, the poor,″ said Rafael Anduval, 63, who sells candy and cigarettes at a bus station on a central Santo Domingo avenue. ``Leonel worried about international business. The government should help Dominicans first.″

Mejia tried to balance such populist appeal with assurances to the country’s elite, who largely supported the pro-business, pro-trade policies of the outgoing Liberation Party government. He pledged to continue streamlining the bureaucracy _ and to avoid authoritarian-style tinkering with the constitution.

``I expect to be an absolutely institution-oriented man and not to depart from that juridical and legal frame,″ he said. ``My strength is finance, management, the reordering of public things, the making of institutions.″

Still, opponents warned of a repeat of the scandal-ridden administration of the last Revolutionary Party president, Salvador Jorge Blanco, who governed from 1982 to 1986.

Dominicans who voted for Mejia ``are going to regret it,″ said Reynaldo Pared, the Liberation Party delegate to the Central Elections Board.

Mejia will raise sales taxes gradually from 8 to 10 percent, instead of the 12 percent proposed by the Liberation Party, said Eduardo Tejera, one of his economic advisers. Mejia wants to lower other tariffs.

Allies like to contrast Mejia’s earnestness to the technocratic style of Fernandez, a lawyer who is well-respected abroad but who is often criticized at home as too aloof. Fernandez is retiring because the Dominican Republic forbids successive terms.

But there are striking similarities, too. Both represent a new generation of Dominican leaders succeeding the trio who dominated politics for 30 years _ Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, Juan Bosch and Balaguer.

Pena Gomez, Mejia’s mentor, died in 1998. Bosch, Fernandez’s mentor, is ill and retired from politics.

Balaguer, still a candidate at 93, retains astonishing influence on Dominican politics. Despite being blind and practically unable to walk, he virtually matched the much younger Medina’s vote count.

Pared said Medina made the decision to withdraw after Balaguer said he was unable to guarantee that his Social Christian Reformist Party could deliver enough votes to give Medina a second-round win.

``For the good of the country, we waive our right to participate in a second round,″ Medina said as some frustrated party members objected angrily.

Fernandez congratulated Mejia and applauded Medina for his ``greatness and generosity″ in not forcing a second round.

International observers pronounced the election fair.

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