July 19, 2024

President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic won his re-election bid in a landslide, bolstered by sweeping restrictions on Haitian migrants and a strong economy.

Mr. Abinader, 56, who rose to power four years ago by vowing to fight corruption, took 57 percent of the vote on Sunday, easily enough to avoid a runoff with his closest rival, Leonel Fernández, a three-time former president. Mr. Fernández took 29 percent, with 100 percent of polling stations counted, according the Dominican Republic’s national electoral authority.

The official results were made available on Tuesday night, though Mr. Abinader’s top rivals had already conceded on Sunday night. Mr. Abinader, a former executive in the tourism industry, held a commanding lead going into the vote as opponents foundered in trying to unseat one of Latin America’s most popular incumbents.

In a victory speech, Mr. Abinader thanked his rivals and those who voted for him.

“I accept the trust placed in me,” Mr. Abinader said. “I will not let you down.”

Mr. Abinader’s immigration policies loomed over the election, spotlighting how a crackdown on migrants can prove exceptionally popular. The Dominican Republic, which occupies the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, is ramping up deportations of tens of thousands of Haitians this year.

As armed gangs create turmoil in Haiti, Mr. Abinader is also pressing ahead with building a border wall between the two countries. In a country where exploiting anti-Haitian sentiment is nothing new, and where the crisis in Haiti has sowed fears of contagion, many voters applauded such moves.

“He has shown who wears the pants on this issue,” said Robert Luna, a voter in Santo Domingo who works in marketing, about Mr. Abinader’s migration policies. “He’s fighting for what the fathers of the nation wanted.”

Mr. Abinader’s first-round victory also showed how the Dominican Republic, with one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies, stands apart from other countries in the region, where many leaders who rose to power in the same period as Mr. Abinader are dogged by dismal approval ratings.

Much of Mr. Abinader’s support also stems from his anti-graft initiatives. He won his first term in 2020 by vowing to clean up the corruption that has long been embedded in the political culture of the Dominican Republic, a country of 11.2 million people.

He appointed Miriam Germán, a former Supreme Court judge, as attorney general. She has overseen investigations that ensnared high-ranking officials in the previous administration, including a former attorney general and a former finance minister.

The investigations have largely focused on people opposed to Mr. Abinader, prompting criticism that his own government has been spared. But other moves, like the passage in 2022 of an asset forfeiture law, offer hope of lasting change. The forfeiture law is viewed as an important and pioneering tool for disrupting and dismantling criminal enterprises, depriving them of property acquired illegally.

Rosario Espinal, a Dominican political analyst, said Mr. Abinader could have won re-election simply by focusing on the battle against corruption, as he did in 2020, “but not with the margins that he wants.”

Instead, Ms. Espinal said, Mr. Abinader embraced the nativist immigration policies traditionally pushed by the Dominican far right. “He needed to find a new topic that would resonate,” she said. “He found that in migration.”

In doing so, Mr. Abinader drew on a long tradition. Rafael Trujillo, the xenophobic dictator who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961, institutionalized a campaign portraying Haitians as racially inferior and, in 1937, ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Nearly every other country in the Americas offers birthright citizenship. But a 2010 constitutional amendment and a 2013 court ruling excluded Dominican-born children of undocumented migrants from citizenship.

In practical terms, that means that roughly 130,000 descendants of Haitian migrants are living in the Dominican Republic without citizenship despite being born there, according to rights groups.

As Haiti descended into chaos following the 2021 assassination of the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, Mr. Abinader built on the anti-immigrant measures already enshrined in Dominican law.

He suspended visas for Haitians in 2023 and then closed the border with Haiti for nearly a month, in a dispute over the construction of a canal in Haiti using water from a river shared between the two countries.

Dominican immigration officials have gone considerably further, with some accused of looting the homes of Haitians and embarking on a campaign to detain and deport Haitian women who were pregnant or who had just given birth.

Pablo Mella, academic director of the Pedro Francisco Bonó Institute, at Dominican university, called Mr. Abinader’s policies toward Haiti a “public and international disgrace,” particularly the treatment of pregnant Haitian women.

Ahead of the election, a large majority of Dominican voters said that the upheaval in Haiti was influencing how they would vote. And Mr. Abinader clearly benefited from such concerns, with nearly 90 percent of voters expressing support for his construction of a border wall.

Many in the large Dominican diaspora were also allowed to cast ballots in the election, with more than 600,000 eligible voters residing in the United States and more than 100,000 in Spain.

Mr. Abinader has defended his immigration policies, saying they are no different from what countries like Jamaica, Bahamas, the United States and Canada have done to limit the arrival of Haitians fleeing the crisis.

“I have to do whatever is necessary to secure our people,” Mr. Abinader told the BBC in a recent interview. “We are just applying our law.”

Mr. Abinader’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Additionally, Mr. Abinader benefited from a divided opposition and a broad consensus in the Dominican Republic in favor of investor-friendly policies that have spurred economic growth. His handling of the coronavirus pandemic also helped, with the relatively quick distribution of vaccines allowing the Dominican tourism industry to bounce back while some other countries were requiring visitors to go into quarantine.

Tourism is a pillar of the economy, accounting for about 16 percent of gross domestic product. The World Bank expects the Dominican Republic’s economy to grow by 5.1 percent this year.

While the country’s economy has expanded over the last two decades at a rate three times the average in Latin America, enduring inequality has opened Mr. Abinader to criticism. He has responded by expanding popular cash-transfer programs for the country’s poorest residents.

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