The Miami Herald
February 9, 2000
At age 92, ex-Dominican leader poised to lead again


 SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- It's not surprising that former President
 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 Christian Reform
 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 works and
 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 Houston hospital
 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 the mummy-like
 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 trail marks
 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 by
 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 our political
 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, is
 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 electoral
 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 certainly
 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 animosity
 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 a 92-year-old
 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