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  • The Dominican Republic's Disputed Elections
  • Jonathan Hartlyn (bio)

Ever since May 1961, when Rafael Trujillo's 31-year-old dictatorship ended under a hail of assassins' bullets, the Dominican Republic has been moving, albeit haltingly, toward democracy. Free elections were held in 1962, for instance, but the winner was overthrown less than a year after he took office. Two years later came a civil-military uprising, followed days later by a U.S. military intervention. The legitimacy of elections held in 1966 was clouded by this intervention, and overt military pressure against the opposition limited the democratic nature of the 1970 and 1974 elections. Only in 1978 did a democratic transition occur as political power passed from one political party to another through elections, though international pressure was crucial in ensuring that the results would be respected. Elections that were democratic but incident-prone followed in 1982 and 1986.

Despite these successes, Dominican democracy remains fragile and uninstitutionalized. The most recent elections, held on 16 May 1990, revealed that political parties and institutions are weak, while levels of civic participation remain low. The single-round plurality, "winner-take-all" electoral system for the powerful presidency and 30 senate seats; the large role of the state in an economy hit by severe unemployment; the lack of civil-service legislation; and the absence of competitive bidding for most state transactions all raised the stakes of the election. A Dominican political culture characterized by personalism, intrigue, and [End Page 92] distrust complicated matters further. With two octogenarian historic figures as the leading contenders for the presidency, the Republic seemed trapped in the past. Still, there were hopeful signs: the campaign was open, and though hotly contested, less violent than past races; finally, and most importantly, there was no fear of overt military intervention.

The institutional weakness of the Central Electoral Board (Junta Central Electoral, or JCE) marred the I990 balloting. There were numerous irregularities, and many charges of fraud were heard both before and after election day. The voter turnout of 60 percent, the lowest in recent Dominican history, underlined the seriousness of popular discontent over growing economic and social problems. The narrowness of the result—no leader or movement managed to win a clear majority-also bespoke widespread voter frustration. Finally, the need to seek out an international election observer, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, as a legitimator and mediating guarantor in the tense days immediately after the elections demonstrated once again the absence of regularized institutional channels and political "rules of the game" within the country, as well as a penchant for involving international actors in domestic disputes.

The narrow plurality won by the 83-year-old incumbent, President Joaquín Balaguer of the Reformist Social Christian Party (PRSC), was surprising in view of the country's serious socioeconomic problems and the large lead that early polls had shown for his major opponent, 80 year-old Juan Bosch of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD). What probably made the difference was Bosch's entanglement, late in the campaign, in a dispute with the Catholic Church and a controversy over the privatization of state-owned sugar mills and other enterprises. Negative campaign propaganda that questioned both Bosch's commitment to democratic norms and his mental acuity also played a role. In addition, the strong campaign of the third major candidate, José Francisco Peñia Gómez of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), almost certainly took some votes away from Bosch. Jacobo Majluta, the PRD's 1986 candidate, ran at the head of a new party called the Revolutionary Independent Party (PRI), and came in a distant fourth.

Balaguer won in 1990 with a lower percentage of the vote than he had garnered in 1986, due at least in part to the splitting of the opposition vote (see Table 1). Balaguer's slim margin of victory, combined with the weakness of the Dominican Republic's electoral institutions and procedural irregularities, set the stage for the angry claims of fraud and legal challenges that both the PLD and the PRD, but especially the former, would make against the result.

The elections were rich in historical symbolism. The venerable pair of Balaguer and Bosch...


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