President for 22 of the last 30 years, Joaqun Balaguer Ricardo of the Dominican Republic is one of a dying breed: the Latin American caudillo, or strongman on a horse. When Dominicans vote May 16, they will take the first step toward bringing the country out from Mr. Balaguer's long shadow.
Author of more than a dozen books and scores of poems, President Balaguer is also a man who earned and kept for 30 years the respect of Dominican military forces hardened by civil war.
But Balaguer, the most important man in the country, is not even on the ballot, prevented by the Constitution from running again.
The two leading candidates, both from opposition parties, promise change, saying they will open up the traditionally closed circle of government, end corruption, and adopt a teamwork approach.
Jos Francisco Pea Gmez, representing the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), and Leonel Fernndez of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) lead the balloting and are running neck and neck. Both lead center-left parties. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round of voting will take place June 30.
The campaign has been tainted by racial and nationalist rhetoric, much of it coming from Balaguer himself linking Mr. Pea to neighboring black Haiti. An estimated half-million poor Haitian peasants live here, having fled across the mountains of the island of Hispaniola into the Dominican Republic.
The Haitians work in back-breaking jobs like sugar-cane cutting and ditch-digging and are looked down on. Pea is black in a largely mulatto country of 7.2 million people, while Balaguer is white and Mr. Fernndez is mulatto.
While the Dominican Republic has formally been a democracy since 1966, every election since has been tarred by fraud.
This year's vote is being held two years early under a compromise with opposition parties to resolve allegations of massive fraud in 1994. Balaguer won that election by a margin of just 24,700 votes, under 1 percent of the total.
An investigation determined that as many as 45,000 Dominicans, many of them likely Pea supporters, had been prevented from voting. Under heavy international pressure, Balaguer reluctantly agreed to hold early elections and not to run again.
Historian Julio Genaro Campillo Prez traces the national affinity for strongmen back to colonial times and the first government in the New World, which Columbus established here after landing in 1492.
"We haven't had a great leader who loved his people and not just power," Mr. Campillo says.
That's not to say a more pluralistic kind of democracy is impossible, he says: "If all the powers agree with each other, yes, they can govern."
But that is a big if. Public opinion is divided among three parties, and Dominican history gives little reason for optimism. Dictator Rafael Trujillo came to power in 1930 by toppling President Horacio Vasquez, then met his own violent end, assassinated 31 years later.
Juan Bosch, the first democratically elected president after Trujillo, was president less than a year before a coup pushed the country into chaos, prompting a 1965 invasion by the United States.
Elected a year later, Balaguer stayed in power until 1978, when President Carter pressured him to accept the opposition's victory. Balaguer won again in 1986 and has been in office since.
"This country is difficult to run," says Jacinto Peynado Garrigoza, the current vice president and presidential candidate of Balaguer's Reformista Party. "Balaguer will be the first caudillo to step aside." Mr. Peynado is running a distant third.
Balaguer has governed during his six terms in an autocratic style, shuffling cabinets arbitrarily and keeping discretionary spending powers over half of the budget. But many Dominicans, even those who oppose him, say his firm hand has been needed to keep the country stable.
On the hustings?
Balaguer he has been a key force in the campaign, crossing the country inaugurating public works projects and speaking about the destiny of the Dominican Republic.
"He's very good to us. He's built many houses, many schools, and he gives food to poor people," says Elsa Taveras, who's dressed in red - Balaguer's color - for a rally in the provincial town of Moca. She's waiting in line with hundreds of other Dominicans to receive red bags full of foodstuffs or envelopes full of 100 pesos ($8). The handouts are a common practice of the president.
The strongman has frequently defended the electoral process over the last weeks and has made it clear that he will remain visible, whoever wins.