This is a guest post by Leiv Marsteintredet, Associate professor Latin American Studies, University of Oslo, and Comparative Politics, University of Bergen, Twitter: @leivm_academic
The Dominican Republic held what was locally dubbed as a mega-election on May 15, 2016. For the first time since 1994 the country organised local, congressional and presidential elections on the same day. This year the 6.7 million registered voters could go to the polls to elect a president, 222 members of both chambers of Congress, 20 deputies to the Central American Parliament, and around 4,000 new members of municipal councils and mayors. Elections were synchronised in the 2010 Constitution in an attempt to avoid the constant electoral campaigns resulting from midterm elections. The sheer size of the elections combined with outdated electoral laws, poor administration and preparation by the Central Electoral Board made for a chaotic electoral day and counting process. Although the opposition cried fraud and protested several congressional and local results, most observers judged the election as free and fair, but also that the quality of the electoral process and organisation had clearly deteriorated compared to earlier elections.
Dominican voters voted for continuity this year, reelecting the incumbent President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD). Medina won handsomely with 61.7% of the votes over his main opponent Luis Abinader of the newly created Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), a splinter from the traditional Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). The PLD also kept its majority control over both chambers of Congress, a majority it has held since 2002. Participation was around 70% in both congressional and presidential elections.
Background and campaign
The Dominican party system is among the least polarised ideologically in Latin America, and electoral campaigns seldom deal with issues and ideology, but rather become conflicts about persons and positions. Instead of campaign promises and programmes, voters mostly see accusations and negative messages, in addition to a series of caravans with politicians touring cities with large followings of all types of vehicles. This year’s campaign was no exception, and the greatest conflicts and controversies over positions occurred within rather than between parties.
Besides a new national security plan presented by Abinader and his security advisor Rudy Guiliani(!), the former mayor of New York, and the first ever presidential candidate debate in the country, which President Danilo Medina declined to participate in, the campaign was relatively uneventful. President Medina has since his election in 2012 been among the most popular presidents in Latin America, and his reelection was never in danger. Medina campaigned on a promise of stability and continuity. Supported by a positive macro-economy, and abundant state and private resources Medina and PLD managed to run an effective campaign. A splintered opposition led by Abinader who lacked charisma and ideas in the confrontation with Medina, never stood a chance to challenge the PLD in the presidential or congressional elections.
The real campaign, however, had already occurred within the political parties. In 2012, when Medina was elected, there was a constitutional ban on immediate presidential reelection. Using his popularity, political capital, and backroom deals, Medina managed in April 2015 to win the support of the Political Committee of the PLD to support a constitutional reform to allow for his immediate reelection. The result surprised many since a constitutional reform would come at the expense of three times former president and undisputed PLD leader Leonel Fernández, who otherwise would have been PLD’s presidential candidate for 2016. At the time, Fernández was already campaigning for the presidency, and he strongly lobbied against the reform. Although a terrible loss for Fernández, who suddenly lost control over the party he had led since 1994, the deep conflict did not split the PLD, and the party’s tradition of maintaining unity prevailed.
The PRD, however, holds a long tradition of splintering after conflicts. The nominally social-democratic PRD is the oldest party in the country, founded in exile during the Trujillo regime in 1937, and has split several times throughout history. The PLD is in fact a splinter party from the PRD, founded in 1973 when Juan Bosch left the party he founded. PRD also experienced serious splits in the late 1980s and in 2004. The most serious splinter, however, occurred in 2013-2014 when the majority of the party left, or was expulsed from, the PRD to found the PRM. The conflict was about the leadership of the PRD, in the hands of the unpopular Miguel Vargas Maldonado since 2009. In 2013 Vargas Maldonado refused to organise a party convention to elect a new president (an election he would most certainly have lost). Vargas Maldonado bunkered in to keep control over the PRD, while the majority of the party’s leaders and followers left to organise the new PRM. While PRM managed to overcome a split over the presidential candidacy, a very weakened PRD ended up supporting Medina’s constitutional reform for immediate reelection, and becoming part of Medina’s electoral coalition. Given the historical enmity between the PRD and the PLD resulting from bad blood from their split in1973, their coalition is historic in Dominican politics. It was also historic that the PRD for the first time since 1974 (and before that since 1962) did not present a presidential candidate.
The split in the PRD thus strengthened the PLD and Medina, and weakened what was left of the opposition. These conflicts in the opposition helped Medina not only win the presidency handsomely, but the PLD won 55.8% of the seats in the Lower Chamber, and 81% of the seats in the Senate, after receiving 41.8% of the votes in the congressional elections. With its allies in Congress, PLD holds a 2/3 majority in the Lower Chamber (127 of 190 seats), and a full 91% of the seats in the Senate.
Towards a dominant party system?
Kenneth Greene defines a dominant party system as a hybrid that combines “meaningful electoral competition with continuous executive and legislative rule by a single party for at least 20 years or at least four consecutive elections”. The PLD has now won the last four presidential elections, and enjoyed a handsome majority in both chambers of Congress since 2002 (also over four elections). According to Greene’s definition, the PLD is on its way to consolidate as a dominant party. The last 12 years have increased the asymmetry in terms of resources, professionalism and expertise between the PLD and the other parties. From the government the PLD has managed to co-opt parts of the opposition, first the Reformist party (PRSC), and now the PRD, and both opposition parties have suffered self-inflicted splits: Thus the PLD has ruled almost unopposed since 2004. Now it is within the party organisation the important decisions are made, not Congress or the presidency. For instance, this July it was the PLD’s Political Committee that selected the leadership of both chambers of Congress a month before the new Congress was sworn in.
PLD’s control over the Senate has enabled the party to select its supporters to all the high courts and autonomous state institutions since the 2010 Constitutional reform, which called for a renewal of these institutions, so that it now dominates all parts of the state. Controversial decisions in the Central Electoral Board, and the other high courts in favour of the PLD and its high-ranking members have served to strengthen the accusations of politicisation of these institutions. The controversies surrounding the 2016 elections is yet another example that the nominally autonomous institutions of the state are slowly deteriorating.
Although the PLD in power has managed to secure growth and macro-economic stability, ruling unopposed is never good for democracy. This year’s election consolidated the PLD’s hold on power and control over what we now can call the PLD-state. The weak opposition, on its hand, is becoming increasingly desperate to gain influence over politics, and has started questioning the democratic merits of the government and state institutions. The question is whether the opposition will win elections before or after the PLD’s uncontrolled power converts into abuse of power and mismanagement. Right now the opposition is fighting an ever-increasing uphill battle.
 This is also a result of the 2010 Constitutional overhaul. The Dominican Republic has changed its presidential reelection rules a total of four times since 1994.
 Kenneth F. Greene (2007). Why Dominant Parties Lose. Mexico’s Democratization in Comparative Perspective. (Cambridge University Press): p. 12