Incumbent favored to win as Dominican presidential vote closes

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Santo Domingo (AFP)

Dominican Republic incumbent leader Danilo Medina was favored to win the country's presidential election as polling stations closed, in a vote marked by long lines, technical difficulties and staff walkouts.

Authorities in the popular Caribbean tourist destination, which is beset by widespread poverty, had prolonged the vote by an hour after some polling centers opened up to two hours late.

The day's delays were due to glitches with electronic equipment and a mass resignation of some 3,000 technical assistants, according to the head of the electoral commission, Roberto Rosario, who gave no details on why the workers quit.

"From here on we will see national consolidation. The vote is over," Rosario said after stations closed at 2300 GMT.

Medina, who is favored to beat his seven rivals despite the country's grinding poverty and widespread crime, called the resignations "irresponsible" as he cast his ballot at a school in the capital of Santo Domingo.

"The process is taking place as normal," he said.

Many polling centers switched to manual balloting due to issues with electronic voting, which was used for the first time.

"We are overcoming these problems, which are normal," Rosario said.

Earlier, he promised "the most transparent elections in the history of our democracy."

But some of the voters who cast their ballots across the more than 16,000 polling stations that were set up in the country, were disgruntled.

"I got up early because I have to work... I want to vote and couldn't," said Mireya de la Cruz, a tourism worker who queued at a school.

- Poverty a problem -

Medina, who is up against a divided opposition, has an 89 percent approval rating, according to a survey by Mexican consultancy Mitofsky. That makes the 64-year-old the most popular leader in Latin America.

"I voted for continuity. Danilo needs another four years to improve safety and work with the schools," Roxana Almonte, a 58-year-old secretary at a school in downtown Santo Domingo, told AFP.

Medina's centrist PLD party has been in power for 12 years in the Spanish-speaking country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with its troubled neighbor, Haiti.

The economy is booming thanks to millions of tourism dollars from foreigners flocking to the country's luxury hotels and beaches. It grew seven percent last year and inflation stood at 2.3 percent.

But 40 percent of the nation's 10 million people are estimated to live in poverty and the unemployment rate is about 14 percent, according to government figures.

"Everything is expensive -- fuel, food," said William Mercedes, a 50-year-old farm worker. "We have a lot of poverty, and there are few jobs."

Critics complain that crime has worsened under Medina and say his party has been in power for too long.

Medina also faces allegations of misusing electoral funds and broad international criticism over policies that discriminate against the Dominican-born children of Haitian migrant workers.

- A landslide victory? -

Surveys indicate that Medina will get around 60 percent of the vote, enough to win the election outright.

His nearest rival, social democrat Luis Abinader, has 29 percent support, the surveys showed. He is hoping to force Medina into a run-off.

Many of Medina's supporters tout the state of the economy and improvements in education as his major accomplishments.

When Medina was elected in 2012 he was supposed to be limited to one four-year stint as president. But he passed a reform in 2015 that has allowed him to run for reelection.

The 48-year-old Abinader belongs to the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), a break-off faction of the formerly powerful Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD).

He has blamed Medina for government corruption and the country's high crime rate.

"We have two options here: democracy or one-party dictatorship," said Abinader, a wealthy businessman of Lebanese ancestry, at a recent public appearance in a working-class neighborhood.

Some 6.7 million of the Dominican Republic's 10 million residents are eligible to vote, with some 3,000 observers on hand to monitor the process.

Also being elected are 32 senators, 190 lower house deputies and local officials, with candidates from 26 different parties participating.