Santo Domingo: Long lines, technical difficulties and walk-outs by polling staff marred presidential elections in the Dominican Republic on Sunday, a race that incumbent leader Danilo Medina is expected to win.
In this popular Caribbean tourist destination beset by widespread poverty, some voting centers opened up to two hours late due to problems with electronic equipment and a mass resignation of technical assistants.
No fewer than 3,000 such assistants presented their resignations, said the head of the electoral commission, Roberto Rosario, without giving details.
Casting his ballot at a school in the capital, Medina, who is favored to beat his seven rivals despite the country`s grinding poverty and widespread crime, called the resignations "irresponsible."
"The process is taking place as normal," he said.
Many polling centers switched to manual balloting due to issues with electronic voting, which is being used for the first time.
"We are overcoming these problems, which are normal," Rosario said.
Earlier, he promised "the most transparent elections in the history of our democracy."
But some voters were disgruntled.
"I got up early because I have to work... I want to vote and couldn`t," said Mireya de la Cruz, a tourism worker who queued at a school.Medina, who is up against a divided opposition, has an 89 percent approval rating, according to a survey by Mexican consultancy Mitofsky. That makes the 64-year-old the most popular leader in Latin America.
"I voted for continuity. Danilo needs another four years to improve safety and work with the schools," Roxana Almonte, a 58-year-old secretary at a school in downtown Santo Domingo, told AFP.
Medina`s centrist PLD party has been in power for 12 years in the Spanish-speaking country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with its troubled neighbor, Haiti.
The economy is booming thanks to millions of tourism dollars from foreigners flocking to the country`s luxury hotels and beaches. It grew seven percent last year and inflation stood at 2.3 percent.
But 40 percent of the nation`s 10 million people are estimated to live in poverty and the unemployment rate is about 14 percent, according to government figures.
"Everything is expensive -- fuel, food," said William Mercedes, a 50-year-old farm worker. "We have a lot of poverty, and there are few jobs."
Critics complain that crime has worsened under Medina and say his party has been in power for too long.
Medina also faces allegations of misusing electoral funds and broad international criticism over policies that discriminate against the Dominican-born children of Haitian migrant workers. Surveys indicate that Medina will get around 60 percent of the vote, enough to win the election outright.
His nearest rival, social democrat Luis Abinader, has 29 percent support, the surveys showed. He is hoping to force Medina into a run-off.
Many of Medina`s supporters tout the state of the economy and improvements in education as his major accomplishments.
When Medina was elected in 2012 he was supposed to be limited to one four-year stint as president. But he passed a reform in 2015 that has allowed him to run for reelection.
The 48-year-old Abinader belongs to the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), a break-off faction of the formerly powerful Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD).
He has blamed Medina for government corruption and the country`s high crime rate.
"We have two options here: democracy or one-party dictatorship," said Abinader, a wealthy businessmen of Lebanese ancestry, at a recent public appearance in a working-class neighborhood.
Some 6.7 million of the Dominican Republic`s 10 million residents are eligible to vote, with some 3,000 observers on hand to monitor the process.
Also being elected are 32 senators, 190 lower house deputies and local officials, with candidates from 26 different parties running.
The country`s more than 16,000 polls were due to close at 2200 GMT.