Dominican President Abinader wins reelection overwhelmingly

President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic won his re-election in a landslide, buoyed by broad restrictions on Haitian immigrants and a strong economy.

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

Official results were available on Tuesday night, although Abinader’s main rivals had already conceded on Sunday night. Abinader, a former tourism industry executive, had a commanding lead heading into the vote as his opponents failed in their bid to unseat one of Latin America’s most popular incumbents.

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

“I accept the trust placed in me,” Abinader said. “I won’t let you down.”

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

As armed gangs create unrest in Haiti, Abinader is also moving forward with the construction of 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 raised fears of contagion, many voters applauded such measures.

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

Abinader’s victory in the first round also showed how the Dominican Republic, with one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, distinguishes itself from other countries in the region, where many leaders who came to power in the same period as Abinader They are stubborn. due to dismal approval ratings.

Much of Abinader’s support also comes from his anti-corruption initiatives. He won his first term in office in 2020 by promising to clean up 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, former Supreme Court judge, attorney general. She has overseen investigations that ensnared high-ranking officials from the previous administration, including a former attorney general and a former finance minister.

The investigations have largely focused on people opposed to Abinader, prompting criticism that his own government has been spared. But other measures, such as the passage in 2022 of an asset forfeiture law, offer hope for lasting change. The confiscation law is considered an important and pioneering tool to disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises, depriving them of illegally acquired assets.

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

Instead, Espinal said, Abinader embraced the nativist immigration policies traditionally pushed by the Dominican far right. “I needed to find a new topic that resonated,” he said. “He found it in migration.”

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

Almost all other countries in America offer birthright citizenship. But a 2010 constitutional amendment and a 2013 court ruling excluded children born in the Dominican Republic to undocumented immigrants from citizenship.

In practical terms, that means that approximately 130,000 descendants of Haitian immigrants live in the Dominican Republic without citizenship despite being born there, according to human rights groups.

As Haiti descended into chaos following the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, Abinader took advantage of anti-immigrant measures already enshrined in Dominican law.

It suspended visas for Haitians in 2023 and then closed the border with Haiti for almost 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 much further, with some being accused of looting the homes of Haitians and embarking on a campaign to detain and deport Haitian women who were pregnant or had just given birth.

Pablo Mella, academic director of the Pedro Francisco Bonó Institute of the Dominican University, described Abinader’s policies towards Haiti as a “public and international shame,” particularly the treatment of pregnant Haitian women.

Before the election, a large majority of Dominican voters said the unrest in Haiti was influencing how they voted. And Abinader clearly benefited from such concerns, as nearly 90 percent of voters expressed support for his construction of a border wall.

Many members of the large Dominican diaspora were also allowed to vote in the elections, with more than 600,000 eligible voters residing in the United States and more than 100,000 in Spain.

Abinader has defended his immigration policies, saying they are no different from what countries like Jamaica, the 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 protect our people,” Abinader told the BBC in a recent interview. “We are simply enforcing our law.”

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

Additionally, Abinader benefited from a divided opposition and 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, as the relatively rapid distribution of vaccines allowed the Dominican tourism industry to recover while some other countries required visitors to 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 5.1 percent this year.

While the country’s economy has expanded over the past two decades at a rate three times the Latin American average, enduring inequality has exposed Abinader to criticism. It has responded by expanding popular cash transfer programs for the country’s poorest residents.

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