Voters in the Dominican Republic are casting ballots in a presidential race. Most opinion polls show President Leonel Fernandez with a strong lead going into the election. VOA's Brian Wagner has this report from our regional bureau in Miami.
Nearly six million voters are eligible to take part in the vote that would allow the Dominican president to seek immediate re-election for the first time since constitutional reforms approved in 2002.
President Leonel Fernandez is promising that, if elected, he will continue a set of policies that have helped cut unemployment and expand social programs for many residents in the Caribbean nation. His main challenger is Miguel Vargas Maldonado, the owner of a construction company who has criticized some of the president's policies, saying many Dominicans still do not have jobs and cannot afford rising prices for food and other essential goods.
Five other candidates are competing in the race, which has been peaceful except for a clash that killed three people on Wednesday.
Ken Mitchell, political scientist at Monmouth College in New Jersey, says Mr. Fernandez has built a strong reputation with his economic policies, including his response to a major banking crisis in 2003.
"He is seen as someone who has really brought the Dominican Republic out of a crisis. That does not mean there is not still a lot of problems in Dominican Republic, it is a very poor society. But he is seen as the more credible option," he said.
Mitchell says the president also is credited with strengthening the tourism-dependent economy and building ties with multilateral lending banks which have provided key support for recent development programs. The president's critics, however, condemn some of his spending priorities, including the construction of a subway system in Santo Domingo whose budget has swelled to more than $700 million.
Opinion polls ahead of the vote showed Mr. Fernandez is favored to win more than 50 percent of votes in the election, which would avoid a run-off election.
An important source of support to the president's re-election bid may come from Dominicans living abroad. Mr. Fernandez, who was born in Santo Domingo and raised in New York, has created an executive commission to hear the concerns of Dominicans in the United States and elsewhere.
Rosa Kasse, a community organizer who serves on the commission in Miami, says the group marks the first such effort by a Dominican leader to strengthen ties with the expatriate community.
"It is in the beginning, it is only four years old. However, Dominicans know it is an executive office that cares and looks into issues of Dominicans not only in the United States but around the world," said Kasse.
The Santo Domingo government is keen on winning support from Dominicans in the United States because money they send back home plays an important role in the nation's economy. The Inter-American Development Bank reported that remittances from Dominicans last year were up seven percent, to more than $3 billion.
Polling stations are open in Miami, New York and cities in other countries with large Dominican communities.