BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- It's not surprising that
Joaquin Balaguer would be seeking an eighth term in office. What is stunning is
that, at age 92, blind and unable to walk, he might actually win.
Just three weeks after accepting his party's nomination for the
May 16 ballot,
Balaguer has seized the electoral spotlight and is being obsequiously courted by
both of his opponents in case a runoff develops.
Supporters revere him with almost religious fervor, and his Social
Party (PRSC) is all but comparing him to Jesus with campaign slogans like ``He
Returns for You and ``The Dominican Nazarene.
``Our daddy is here! chanted the crowd at a PRSC rally last week
as burly aides
carried the shuffling Balaguer by the elbows to the stage and helped him to a
chair, from which he delivered a brief but lucid harangue.
He promised a return to the days when government financed public
served as the engine of the national economy, adding that he would pay special
heed to the country's poor and to farmers. As in every other stop on the campaign
trail, his public appearance was limited to a few minutes.
Balaguer had looked extremely frail before he was rushed to a
for emergency phlebitis treatment last spring, but he is now making almost daily
campaign stops and claims his health is fine.
Although he has never publicly admitted that he is no longer able
to see, Balaguer
has been described as ``nearly blind'' for more than a decade. His aides, always
by his side nowadays, assist him with the most menial chores.
Asked about it recently, Balaguer said he had the capacity to
fulfill the duties of
office, since he did not plan to sit in the presidential palace ``threading needles.''
``He has hit the campaign trail with amazing vigor, compared to
state of last year,'' a Western diplomat marveled. ``We suspected he was alive,
but you could not prove that by his public appearances.
Regardless of whether Balaguer wins, his return to the campaign
another milestone for a virtual prototype of the Latin American caudillo, a man
who has ruled this country for 22 of the last 34 years.
It may also mark a troubling turn for the Dominican Republic,
roiling the political
waters at a time when the country is enjoying an economic boom that has seen
the gross domestic product grow by an average of 7.8 percent a year since 1996.
Balaguer's seven presidential terms since 1960 have been marked
authoritarian rule and corruption. He was last elected in 1994, but was accused of
vote fraud and had to leave power in 1996, two years early.
``He remains very popular, surprisingly to any outsiders, because
culture values astuteness, authoritarian rule, paternalism and populism, said
Gallup Dominicana director Rafael Acevedo.
The latest polls put Balaguer third in the three-man race. But
the requirement that
a candidate win at least half the May vote or face a June runoff make him a
certain king maker, and maybe even king.
Leading the polls is agronomist Hipolito Mejia, 58, from the left-of-center
Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), the largest faction in a country where
voters traditionally identify more with parties than candidates.
But most polls leave Mejia short of the 50 percent hurdle and
give second to
Danilo Medina, 47, of the centrist Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), which won
the presidency in 1996 with a runoff endorsement from Balaguer.
President Leonel Fernandez, 46, legally barred from seeking re-election,
credited with guiding the economic boom and modernizing the almost feudal and
corruption-riddled government bureaucracy that Balaguer left behind.
Yet the party's image has suffered from an energy crisis that
has left Dominicans
without electricity for up to 18 hours a day, allegations of lingering corruption and
complaints that the boom has only helped the rich.
Medina, a career politician who has managed the PLD's last four
campaigns, is promising more spending on social welfare, health, education and
especially agriculture, where half the labor force toils.
But his muted personality -- he hands out business cards listing
his title as
``presidential candidate -- has earned him only 22 percent to 28 percent support
in various polls, while Balaguer trails closely with 18 percent to 23 percent.
Should Balaguer come in third in May, his endorsement will almost
decide the June runoff. Medina, of the PLD, has offered an alliance in which his
party and Balaguer's PRSC would share Cabinet slots and patronage spoils. The
PRD's Mejia, meanwhile, has been meeting privately with Balaguer and praising
him in public.
But if Balaguer comes in second behind Mejia, the decades-old
between Mejia's PRD and Medina's PLD will lead most PLD voters to support
Balaguer in the second round of balloting, Gallup's Acevedo said.
Balaguer ``has the electoral frying pan firmly in hand, and can
shake it any way
he wants, wrote political analyst Reginaldo Atanay.
Most Dominicans blanch at the idea that they could wind up with
president who started going blind in the 1980s, and politicians of all stripes have
been busy thinking up alternative outcomes.
Even if he comes in second in May, some say, Balaguer may bow
out and throw
his support behind the PLD's Medina. And if he wins in June, he may step down
and let his still-unpicked vice president rule, they suggest.
``I don't think he's interested in the presidency, but he wants
to be the referee of
our national politics, said Luis Ernesto Simo, PLD director for international affairs.
Others are not so sure.
``This is an astute man, still very lucid, Acevedo said. ``And
there's nothing that
says he does not want to be president again.
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald