SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) -- Despite poor health,
near blindness and flagging popularity, former Dominican strongman Joaquin
Balaguer on Saturday entered the race for the presidency of the Caribbean
country he led with an iron grip for 22 years.
Balaguer, 93, was helped by aides to the podium after the 1,700 delegates
of his Social Christian Reformist Party, packing a basketball arena, chose
him to run in the May 16 vote.
"Reformers, luck is on our side -- let's go forward!" he said in a strong
that was answered with thunderous applause befitting his status as one of the
region's last "caudillos," or strongmen. "We have to push this country toward
true social development ... to make this country more just for all, and each
day less poor."
The nomination came hours after the bombing of a Santo Domingo law
office owned by party official Mario Read Vittine, who had challenged
Balaguer's pending nomination by saying Saturday's convention was
improperly scheduled. No one was injured during the attack Friday night,
Balaguer has remained the dominant figure in his conservative party since
was forced to give up the presidency in 1996 amid allegations of voter fraud.
His endorsement helped Leonel Fernandez of the moderate Dominican
Liberation Party to the presidency -- a move that gave the elderly ruler a
kingmaker role but put the country on a more liberal course.
Fernandez has courted foreign investment, fought corruption and liberalized
the economy, helping fuel a sustained growth. But the economic boom also
has exacerbated class differences and largely passed by the majority of poor
Dominicans, and Fernandez has been repeatedly thwarted by an
Fernandez is blocked from seeking a consecutive term under a 1994 law
originally aimed at curbing Balaguer's power -- leaving Balaguer facing two
first-time candidates: Hipolito Mejia of the leftist Dominican Revolutionary
Party, a younger politician with a strong grassroots following, and former
Fernandez adviser Danilo Medina.
Polls have put Mejia in the lead, with a theoretical Balaguer candidacy
placing third -- but a wave of nostalgia for his firm hand at the helm makes
the race difficult to predict.
Supporters have been laying the groundwork for Balaguer's campaign for
months, with posters across Santo Domingo declaring "Balaguer is
Returning!" Within hours of his nomination, Dominican television stations
were running Balaguer campaign advertisements.
Dictator Rafael Trujillo, who was assassinated in 1961, named Balaguer
president in 1960.
A 1961 coup forced Balaguer into exile until the United States invaded
1965 to quash a leftist revolt. Balaguer won the 1966 elections.
As an autocratic president over much of the next three decades, he invested
billions of dollars in roads, housing and other public works but failed to lift
most of the island's 8 million people out of poverty. Unemployment still
hovers around 30 percent.
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.