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Voters in Dominican Republic brave virus to elect new president

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Santo Domingo (AFP)

Voters in the Dominican Republic braved a roaring coronavirus epidemic Sunday to cast their ballots for a new president and legislature of the Caribbean country.

Luis Abinader, the frontrunner in the presidential race, is seeking to end 16 years of unbroken rule by the center-left Dominican Liberation Party, whose candidate Gonzalo Castillo was running second in a six-man field, according to pre-vote polls.

Looming over the elections was a rapidly spreading epidemic, with polls opening the day after the number of new cases soared by more than 1,000, a one-day record in a country that has had 36,184 confirmed cases and 786 deaths from the disease.

Outgoing President Danilo Medina, who cannot seek another term under the country's constitution, was forced to impose a national lockdown, easing it only last week as parties made a final drive.

Abinader, a 52-year-old businessman, had to suspend his campaign after testing positive for the coronavirus, but recovered sufficiently to lead a closing election rally on Wednesday.

The elections were supposed to have been held May 17, but were pushed back until Sunday, when election authorities said they would proceed "come what may."

"Respecting social distancing, exercise your right to vote today," the head of the central election board, Julio Cesar Castanos, said in announcing that polls were open.

An observer team from the Organization of American States (OAS) is monitoring the vote, but its leader, former Chilean president Eduardo Frei, was unable to be present because of travel restrictions.

Frei urged people to vote early to avoid crowds.

Some 7.5 million Dominicans are eligible to cast ballots in the election.

Also up for grabs are 32 senate seats, 190 seats in the lower house and 20 representatives to the Central American parliament.

"Change is coming and the PLD is going," Abinader, who is considered a centrist, promised a crowd of hundreds of his supporters at a closing rally Wednesday.

A Gallup poll gives Abinader more than 53 percent of voter intentions, 20 points ahead of the ruling PLD's Castillo. Another poll gives Abinader a slimmer 12-point margin.

"The Dominican people should remember that a president is elected in one day, but the consequences last for four years," Castillo told a crowd of his supporters in the town of Monte Plata.

- Corruption an issue -

Corruption has been a key issue after protests in recent years over the involvement of local officials in the Latin America-wide Odebrecht graft scandal.

The Brazilian construction giant has admitted to doling out $92 million in bribes in the Dominican Republic in exchange for winning public works contracts.

The country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, ranks 137th out of 180 countries on Transparency International's corruption index.

Former president Leonel Fernandez, 66, trails in third place with 8.6 percent. Fernandez ruled for a total of three four-year terms between 1996 and 2012.

Three other candidates are contesting the presidency from minor parties.

- Virus fears -

Despite health protocols being put in place at polling stations, Health Minister Rafael Sanchez Cardenas said it would be "practically impossible" not to have fresh outbreaks of COVID-19.

"We have to get beyond this line of 5th of July, hoping that there won't be an overflow of cases and that we will be able to respond," the minister said.

The pandemic has already hit polling by the Republic's 600,000 overseas voters -- representing almost eight percent of the electoral roll.

Most live in the United States, Spain and Puerto Rico, where polling has been taking place. However, expatriates in Italy and Panama have not been authorized to vote because of coronavirus restrictions in place there.

The Dominican Republic is one of the strongest growing economies in the region, recording on average 6.3 percent growth a year between 2013 and 2018, according to the World Bank.

However, the pandemic risks pushing it back into poverty, the bank warned.

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