Pro-business Abinader will struggle to deliver change in Dominican Republic

BUSINESSMAN and President-elect Luis Abinader will implement more of the same in the Dominican Republic despite ousting the ruling party in a stunning victory, an expert has told Redaction Politics.

The Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) had ruled for 20 of the past 24 years, but neither Gonzalo Castillo nor former President Leonel Fernández, who ran on the progressive People’s Force ticket, could come close to Abinader’s Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) performance.

However, the Dominican Republic possesses some rather rare political qualities in terms of the Overton Window.

As The Economist stated this week, “although power transfers are rare, they do not necessarily bring change”.

We spoke to Ernesto Sagás, a professor of Ethnic Studies at Colorado State University, who told us not to “expect any major policy departures” from the outgoing PLD government.

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He told Redaction Politics: “Abinader is a pro-business candidate who tried to ingratiate himself with the Trump administration by hiring Rudy Giuliani as a security consultant.

“In spite of Abinader’s pro-business attitude, the PRM  is a mass party with thousands of followers eager to enjoy the perks of power.

“In other words, don’t expect any major policy departures. The two largest parties in the DR are patronage machines with little of their original ideology left in them.

“The PLD is no longer a national liberation movement and the PRM has nothing revolutionary in it.

“Both parties support economic growth based on a mostly neoliberal model that encourages foreign investment and tourism.

“Both parties are platforms for the personal advancement of electoral caudillos.

“And both parties are catch-all mass parties with vague platforms and little meaningful ideological differences. If Abinader is a progressive, so is Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.”

Even if Abinader decides to enact some symbolic change – most likely on the nations’ two most pressing issues, crime and corruption – he may be stumped by the country’s political structure.

Professor Sagas said: “Regarding crime, he’ll have to clean house in the police and armed forces—and that’s a tall order.

“Regarding corruption, he’ll have to answer to the demands of thousands of followers that want jobs, contracts, and other perks. Plus, the Dominican Republic has historically had a very weak judicial power, so trying corrupt politicians will be hard.”

But the situation in the Dominican Republic would not have been any different if the other parties, the PLD or the People’s Front, had won.

Fernández was able to insert himself into the race after his split from the PLD by running on a progressive ticket, but while in power, “styled himself as a Clinton-like figure and supported neoliberal policies.”

His race was more about personal ambition rather than ideology, Professor Sagas said, adding: “He, like most ex-presidents in the DR, wanted to become president again (and again).

“Now, he claims the role of kingmaker (having brought down the PLD that betrayed him), and he’ll try again in 2024 (now without Medina to block his path).

“The main mass parties in the DR ceased being ideological a long time ago.”

The PLD, while originally a leftist party based on national liberation, has transformed into a centrist, ‘big tent’ ticket, the professor claimed.

This election was a step too far for the party to maintain power, after corruption, voter fatigue and a botched attempt at constitutional reform plagued the PLD’s chances.

The coronavirus pandemic was the “last nail in the PLD’s coffin”,  exposing “the government’s inefficiency in the midst of a major public health (and economic) crisis.”

Educated in the United States, all eyes will be on Abinader in his immediate response to the pandemic, but for now, electoral chaos appears to have been avoided – albeit with a bleak reminder of the lack of ideology present in the Dominican Republic’s mass parties.

Ernesto Sagás is a professor of Ethnic Studies at Colorado State University.

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