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Date: Mon, 5 May 97 19:18:12 CDT
From: (Rich Winkel)
Subject: NACLA: Negotiated Elections

/** 331.0 **/
** Topic: Negotiated Elections by Roberto Cassa **
** Written 12:49 PM May 1, 1997 by nacla in ** Reprinted from the March/April 1997 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas.
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Negotiated Elections

By Roberto Cassa, NACLA Report on the Americas, March/April 1997

[Roberto Cassa is professor of history at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo.]

It is a constant refrain among observers of the Dominican Republic that the country is evolving toward "the consolidation of democracy." Despite the distance between the refrain and reality, it remains the touchstone of the standard evaluations of the presidential elections that took place in May and June of 1996. The reality is that in the Dominican Republic, although public liberties are now respected, and political lawlessness has considerably diminished, the essential authoritaritarian outlines of the state system are still very much intact. Joaquin Balaguer, the holder of executive power since 1986--and before that, between 1966 and 1978--had effectively annulled all other powers of the state, maintaining himself at the head of government through a combination of procedures that involved electoral fraud, the exercise of extralegal violence, the repression of social protests, bribery, the corruption of the highest spheres of government and, in general, the refusal to observe the canons of the law.

Political movements opposed to this authoritarian structure have long existed in the Dominican Republic, and over the last two decades, Dominicans have particularly resented the impoverishing effects of the state's brutal, self-interested incompetence. During the 1980s, as hopes diminished for change through electoral means, social movements emerged which questioned the country's authoritarian structure and, above all, the dizzying fall of living standards. These movements were never well organized, and they generally suffered from a lack of clear direction. As they ran their course by the end of the decade, hopes returned to electoral means--and the 1990 presidential elections--as a means of ousting Balaguer and his cronies.

These electoral hopes, to a great degree, were buoyed by Juan Bosch's Dominican Liberation Party (PLD)--a party which had gained prestige in the wake of the discredit visited upon the center-left Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), after its eight years in the presidency from 1978 to 1986. Balaguer, however, was successful in his use of brazen fraud in 1990. And beyond simple on-the-ground fraud, he was able to secure U.S. backing for his presidential race. Despite the desire of many U.S. policy makers to rid themselves of the inconvenient Balaguer, Washington power brokers hated and feared PLD candidate Bosch even more. They hated him because of his old leftist positions and, perhaps above all, for his unpredictable personal style. They hated him despite his attempts to change his party, making it into more of a mainstream member of the country's political system, and stripping it of its old radical positions.

Four years later, in 1994, electoral fraud was harder to pull off than it was in 1990. First, the PRD, having resolved its internal divisions, assumed a much more beligerant position toward Balaguer than the PLD. Second, a new Democratic administration in Washington brought a new set of U.S. officials to positions of influence whose primary goal was the departure of Balaguer and the formation of a legitimate government. After events in Haiti, Washington became worried that Balaguer's authoritarian impunity might threaten stability in the Dominican Republic, which could endanger its place within the imperial network. Washington found it convenient to channel discontent into the two opposition parties, the PRD and the PLD, and thereby to undercut the re- emergence of potentially destabilizing popular movements.

This is why the Clinton administration, despite evidence of widespread fraud in the 1994 elections, decided to send State Department functionaries to the Dominican Republic to negotiate a compromise between the government and the opposition. This compromise, called the "Pact for Democracy," recognized that the occurrence of irregularities was so routine and of such a magnitude that the only solution was to modify the Constitution to prohibit the successive re- election of the president. The Pact also cut Balaguer's term short to only two years, and mandated new presidential elections in 1996. It was also ruled that the 1996 presidential elections would be contested in two rounds if no candidate received an absolute majority--the second round consisting of a runoff between the two candidates receiving the most votes.

Although the Pact for Democracy, authorized two additonal years for an illegitimate regime, all sides accepted it on the grounds that it helped to "consolidate democracy." Some opposition leaders even elevated Joaquin Balaguer to the position of exemplary democrat. Compelled to yield to both national and U.S. pressures, Balaguer saw the Pact as the exit from presidential power most favorable to his interests. In the meantime, he prepared the greatest number of obstacles possible to prevent the predicted triumph of the PRD in 1996. For example, he engineered the rejection of the PRD proposal that a 40% plurality in the first round would be sufficient to avoid a runoff, and insisted on the second-round concept. Balaguer's efforts enjoyed the open support of the PLD, which saw the PRD as its greatest competitor. Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, leader and presidential candidate of the PRD, mistakenly let these maneuvers pass in the belief that his triumph at the polls would be great enough to go unchallenged.

From the moment Joaquin Balaguer no longer figured as a presidential candidate, the influence of his Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC) dwindled considerably. Balaguer had no sympathy for the PRSC candidate, the incumbent vice president Jacinto Peynado, who aspired to be Balaguer's political heir. Bequeathing power to Peynado was intolerable for the rightist caudillo, who was thus faced with the choice of strengthening his own political following, or avoiding the triumph of his archenemy, Jose Francisco Pena Gomez. Since his own party had no chance of winning, and a good showing by Peynado would run counter to his own personal interests, Balaguer opted for the second alternative, and devoted himself to working for the triumph of the PLD candidate, Leonel Fernandez.

In accordance with that objective, he encouraged the establishment of close links between the leaderships of the PRSC and the PLD. To bring about the defeat of Pena Gomez, the PLD offered the promise of a "new road," in appearance cleaner than the one offered by the PRD. This did not prevent the PLD from accepting--by way of Balaguer's cronies in the so-called "palace ring"--all manner of helpful resources from the PRSC and the state.

Despite this maneuvering in favor of Fernandez, the PRD enjoyed an initial advantage thanks to its history of militant opposition to the unpopular Balaguer regime. To make use of that advantage, however, the party had to propose significant modifications of its past practices. The party's weak flank was the public memory of its two administrations from 1978 to 1986, both characterized by incompetence and corruption. Many influential PRD activists were conscious of the need to put some distance between the party and its own past, but large portions of the leadership involved in that corrupt experience were not prepared to step aside.

Pena Gomez, as the leader of the party, tried to bring both perspectives together, offering a promise of substantial change while preserving the historic symbols of the party's identity. To accomplish this, he established alliances with a large number political sectors--to his right as well as to his left--in the so-called Santo Domingo Accord. Above all, he emphasized a moderate orientation, symbolized by his choice of advisors, and above all by his running mate, Francisco Alvarez Bogaert, a political conservative who had been driven out of the PRSC for trying to displace Balaguer.

In sum, the PRD saw itself trapped between the need to obtain popular support on the basis of new political proposals, and that of remaining acceptable to its dominant sectors, without whom it would not be able to win. And beyond mollifying its own conservative forces, the party's rightward drift was meant to maintain crucial support from big capital and other powerful actors in order to counterbalance the power of the state apparatus in the hands of Balaguer.

The party's solution was to lay out programatic proposals that emphasized modernization and social reforms, not unlike much of the neoliberal tonic currently prevalent in Latin America. From the electoral point of view, the PRD believed that these proposals would be supported by a majority of the electorate, and especially the urban poor. And this was the party's principal error. Certain of its triumph, it underestimated the challenge posed by the the PLD which, with large sums of money put at its disposal by the state, was able to hammer away at the credibility of its rivals.

The PLD ran on a platform that appeared to recover its historic progressivism and make it compatible with the alliance it was establishing with the PRSC. The PLD ably responded to PRD accusations of collusion with Balaguer, pointing out that the PRD too had built alliances with rightists coming from the PRSC. Few in the party's core showed any doubts about its embrace of neoliberalism, and none publicly expressed any opposition to the collusion with Balaguerism. There apparently was a consensus to obtain power no matter what the price--a stance that received its calm justification from Bosch's old preachings on the separation of politics and ethics.

The programs of all three parties were more or less the same-maintaining the status quo with vague promises of modernization. A great majority of the population favored defeating the intrigues of Balaguer and achieving a true transition to democracy, which explains the early support enjoyed by the PRD. Its long-term anti-Balaguerist identity became its principal capital in the campaign.

In the meantime, other sectors sought, for a variety of reasons, to prevent the triumph of the PRD. Some opposed the PRD for its past corruption, and some for its veiled threats that it would bring Balaguer's corrupt associates to justice. This polarization favored the PLD from the moment it was able to place itself above all the old practices of state corruption. The PLD offered the guarantees of impunity from judgement for past offenses demanded by the high circles of Balaguerism, at the same time that it kept kept its support base that saw the party as an instrument of substantial change.

The lack of programatic differences, combined with these conjunctural positions, led to a polarized and heated campaign which, in other circumstances, might have presaged an armed confrontation. Each party was desperate for victory-a climate that was exacerbated by the fact that both the PRD and the PLD had reasonable chances of winning. The result was the division of the country into two nearly equal voting blocs which excluded only a dwindling number of undecided voters and a small number of independents of the left. More than ever before, Dominicans were placing all their hopes and expectations on the outcome of the elections.

The PRD's loss was due fundamentally to a generational reaction in favor of the PLD. Young--and politically independent--voters saw in the 42 year-old Leonel Hernandez a symbol of generational change in public affairs. Insofar as the younger generation has relegated the question of ideology to secondary status, the hopes for renewal augured by the PLD succeeded in transcending the conservative inclinations of the upper-middle class and the social worries of the popular classes. This generational sentiment was embedded in the premise that a new administration should, above all, combine decency and efficiency.

The social factor was less acknowledged than the generational, although the groupings with the greatest sense of tradition and identity among the popular classes strongly supported the PRD. But the support of the urban barrios was not able to outweigh the powerful regional alignments. Neither was the PRD able to bring the campesino masses under its wing, most of whom remained loyal to the PRSC and therefore ended up depositing their second-round votes for the PLD.

While the middle class consistently rejected the PRD--either from a conservative position or because their expectations of progress and honesty had been betrayed--big business was divided, though neither for ideological reasons nor over the debate between protectionists and free traders. Oligarchic sectors who traditionally had access to the highest levels of government allied against Pena Gomez, but a large number of mid-size capitalists supported the PRD, apparently seeking some respite from the abuses of power.

Given his need to inflict decisive blows against the PRD, Balaguer once again raised the specter of great powers who were plotting to pull apart the country and unite it with neighboring Haiti. He presented Pena Gomez as the principal plotter, given his probable Haitian ancestry. Balaguer's slogan throughout the campaign was that the country needed to elect someone "truly Dominican," a euphemism meant to question Pena Gomez's national identity. As on other occasions, the right used racist and nationalist motives to raise anti-Haitian sentiments to its political advantage.

Without attaching itself literally to the racist campaign, the PLD took advantage of the strategy. It claimed that 150,000 Haitian citizens had illegally been registered to vote, and announced that its poll watchers would object to any voters who looked like Haitians. This was a clear attempt to link the Haitian nation with the PRD. In the barrios, an image developed of the PLD as a party of wealthy white people and intellectuals who were connected to forces abroad.

The PRD responded with a campaign to defend the rights of Dominican "morenos," presumably aggrieved by the PLD's campaign, and launched a campaign to defend black Dominicans as the victims of demagogy. The counter-campaign, however, may have contributed to the strengthening of its rivals, given that it only involved sectors of the poor population already solidly behind Pena Gomez. But for the most part, the racial campaign either had very little effect or was actually counterproductive. The great majority of the population questioned the racial arguments of both sides, or simply didn't consider them primary elements in deciding how to vote. This is not to say that there may have been a certain amount of racist opposition to Pena Gomez as much for his presumed Haitian ancestry as for the color of his skin. But in general, despite the complaints of the PRD candidate that the country wasn't ready to vote for a black leader, the vast majority cast its votes strictly on the basis of politics.

In the first round which took place on May 16, the PRD finished first with 46% of the vote, followed by the PLD with 39% and the PRSC with 15%. Paradoxically, these results did not favor the PRD, which had put all its expectations on receiving the 50% necessary to win on the first ballot. For its part, the PLD was delighted, and began to project itself as the probable winner in the second round.

As a response to the tightness of the race, the PLD entered into an alliance with the PRSC called the National Patriotic Front (FPN). The front--which had been decided on before the first round by way of a secret accord between Fernandez and Balaguer--had as its sole objective the election of Leonel Fernandez. This revealed the lengths to which Balaguer was willing to go to prevent the election of Pena Gomez. While the Fernandez campaign was never actually directed by Balaguer, the discourse of the old caudillo prevailed. In this way, the PLD--by way of the Balaguer-Fernandez "front"-- wove racist and conservative arguments into its campaign with more clarity. The front had no other declared objective than to "preserve Dominicanness." In the background, the pact guaranteed immunity from investigation and prosecution to the old leaders of the PRSC after they left power. It also contained implicit guarantees that the PRSC would have a quota of positions in the new government.

To seal the agreement, Fernandez proclaimed that the thought and work of Balaguer would be essential reference points for his presidency. This adulteration of the historical trajectory of the PLD was unanimously supported by the party's leadership. Even prestigious individuals who had come from the party's left supported the historic rehabilitation of Balaguer. In the end, the assumption of power by Fernandez showed that Balaguer's final triumph was his own successful management of his departure from the presidency.

Meanwhile, the PRD and its allies tried to defend against the PLD-Balaguerist offensive, but could not manage an effective response. On the one hand, the party created a new focus for the campaign, the so-called "Growth Commando," which attempted to give more force to progressive sectors, and to distance itself from the party's past performance. It was clear, however, that the Growth Commando lacked backing from the party's ruling apparatus, which preferred to simply maintain old slogans.

Far from putting together a discourse around social themes or substantial political reforms, the PRD centered all its energies in attracting sectors of the PRSC--beginning with its defeated presidential candidate, Jacinto Peynado-- supposedly discontent with Balaguer's "palace ring". Rafael Corporan, an old PRSC functionary from Santo Domingo, announced his support for Pena Gomez and was promptly elevated to the position of hero of the hour. But the idea of turning the PRSC against Balaguer was destined to fail since the party had always operated according to the will of the old caudillo.

The PRD did not direct enough attention to undecided voters who were disturbed by the formation of the FPN. Many polls indicated that immediately following the formation of the FPN, there was a noticeable drop in support for Fernandez, which made the triumph of Pena Gomez a distinct possibility. In the end, however, the PRD failed to capitalize on this sentiment, and Fernandez won the presidency with 52% of the vote.

As the PLD settles in, it is premature to attempt an evaluation of its governing style. Its shameful metamorphosis into a clientelistic party, however, means that only with great difficulty will its genuinely reformist or progressive voices succeed in making themselves heard. Nor can we harbor any great hopes of a principled opposition from the PRD, the majority of whose leaders are already scheming with Balaguer in an attempt simply to undermine the new Fernandez administration. Neither are there forces on the left currently capable of effectively channeling the demands of the large masses of Dominicans. The situation therefore presents the same risk the country faced in 1978--that frustration brought about by the unmet expectations raised by a new ruling party will lead the country back to its old authoritarian ways.