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04SANTODOMINGO957 2004-02-17 11:46:00 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Santo Domingo
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DOMINICAN ELECTION #22: LEONEL CONFIDENT, HIPOLITO

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1. (SBU) This is number 22 in our Presidential election
series.

LEONEL CONFIDENT, HIPOLITO DIGS IN

Dominican President Hipolito Mejia got bad news last week for
his re-election bid. It should have been a good week, with
the IMF approval of a new standby, a government agreement
with the electricity sector promising an end to blackouts,
and the heartening drop in the exchange rate from 55 pesos to
48 to the dollar. But the PRD's proposal to revise the
electoral law appeared to die in the House of Representatives
after forceful objections from the Central Elections Board
(JCE). More damaging was the February 12 publication by U.S.
political consultants Penn Schoen of a national survey from
January showing Mejia in third place with 13 percent. Mejia
and his advisers waved away the results and responded with
"come-and-get-it" ads: "We'll see in May!" (Further poll
numbers below.)

PLD candidate Leonel Fernandez coasted onward with 65 percent
in the Penn Schoen poll. He visited the New York Dominican
community again, between two weekends of domestic PLD
campaigning. President Mejia continued to cut ribbons on
public works to boost his ratings. PRSC candidate Eduardo
Estrella led a caravan through the neighborhoods of Santo
Domingo on Valentine's Day, through waving banners of PRSC
red.

The JCE officially accepted candidacy filings of Estrella,
Fernandez, and Mejia as the major party candidates,
sidelining dissident PRD and PRSC contenders.

"Slogans law" Fades Away

The unpopular bill to change the election law is moribund,
but not necessarily dead. The Senate passed the bill on
second reading, early in the week. On Wednesday the nine
judges of the JCE delivered a unanimous report opposing
changes in law and procedures only 90 days before the
elections. The American Chamber of Commerce published its
formal opposition to the draft law, adding its voice to that
of essentially all other responsible civil society
organizations. The Coalition for Transparency and
Institutionalism (a band of prominent business and civic
organizations) had earlier published a legal brief prepared
for the Supreme Court arguing that the bill would be
unconstitutional.

House of Representatives Speaker Alfredo Pacheco (PRD)
reiterated to us February 11 his personal opposition to the
measure. After failing to assemble a quorum that day and
again on February 12 for the vote demanded by Mejia's
PRD/PPH, Pacheco removed it from the agenda. About
two-thirds of the 150 deputies boycotted the session,
including some PPH members. There was no sign of any "man
with a briefcase," although some of our contacts had been
spinning tales of payoffs expected to reach 2 million pesos
(USD 40,000) per legislator. The special session lapsed on
February 12.

Opposition contacts remained concerned that the President's
supporters might reintroduce the bill, either in reconvened
special session or in regular session after reconvening on
February 27. With glee reminiscent of late night campfire
tales, some mid-level PLD supporters evoked for us over
dinner the spectres of fraudulent vote counts, suspension of
the elections because of impossible logistics, and a mythic
post-Hipolito interim presidency chosen by the PRD majority
in Congress. "We need the guarantee of international
observers from the United States and other countries!"

The Church

Cardinal Nicolas Lopez Rodriguez remains an outspoken critic
of Mejia. The bishops' letter for the end of 2003 made an
oblique suggestion that Mejia reconsider his effort to win
re-election. On February 5 when discussing electricity
sector problems the Cardinal commented to journalists, "The
Government has heard from us many times what it should do.
Eventually one gets tired of repeating it to them." Lopez
Rodriguez was equally angry during a February 15 television
interview, complaining that "miserable, bought journalists"
("chupatintas") were constantly attacking him for conveying
the people's woes. One of our contacts asserts that in late
January after discussions with the Cardinal and his advisor
Fr. Arnaiez, the contact conveyed to the President a
suggestion that Mejia resign and leave the administration in
the hands of Milagros Ortiz-Bosch while he campaigns. This
would quiet fears of government manipulation of electoral
mechanisms. Our contact expected nothing to come of that
idea, and not surprisingly, nothing has.

The Poll

Penn Schoen's poll was financed by "a group of businessmen"
(not further identified, but certainly friendly to the PLD,
for PLD notable Bernardo Vega brought us details on February
13). It gave Fernandez 65 percent of voter preferences, 7
points more than last September, and Mejia only 13 percent,
down 7. Estrella advanced from 14 to 16 percent and moved up
from third to second place. Six percent of voters remained
undecided. In pollster's hypothetical scenarios, if
Fernandez does not win the first round outright, he will beat
Estrella in a second round by 67 to 23 percent, with 9
percent undecided. A second round between Fernandez and
Mejia would produce a 73-16 landslide for Leonel, with 10
percent undecided. Nearly half of voters who supported the
PRD or PRSC in the 2000 election said they would now vote for
Fernandez, enabling him to gather in much of his rivals'
traditional constituencies. (A caveat: some of our contacts
do not believe that party allegiances will fail so readily,
and they see Mejia's base as closer to 30 percent.)

Penn Schoen found the ruling PRD weak across the board.
Respondents labeling Mejia's performance as "unfavorable"
were 86 percent; Vice President Milagros Ortiz-Bosch got that
label 78 percent of the time and PRD rival Rafael "Fello"
Subervi was "unfavorable" for 79 percent. Estrella's negative
rating was 53 percent and Fernandez's only 23.

The roots of Mejia's unpopularity are evident in the numbers.
Some 75 percent of poll respondents identified the country's
main problem as rising consumer prices, fuel prices, exchange
rates or electrical energy. Only 4 percent checked
corruption as the foremost issue (suggesting that the
electorate has little understanding of the contribution of
the BANINTER fraud to the principal woes of the population).
When asked to identify those responsible for economic
problems, 70 percent blamed Mejia, 17 percent blamed the
Fernandez administration (1996-2000), and 8 percent blamed
the bankers. The poll suggested strongly that Mejia's
campaign themes had not yet taken effect: 79 percent did not
believe Mejia had boosted programs to fight poverty and 65
percent disagreed with the assertion that his administration
had built far more public works than had the Fernandez
administration.

A majority said Fernandez did a "bad" or "very bad" job
privatizing electric companies. This leaves at least one
campaign opening for Meja if he can keep the lights on across
the country over the next 90 days.

Campaigning

None of the major parties has published a platform.
Fernandez himself told EcoPol counselor on February 10th that
the PLD has put together an economic proposal "full of new
ideas" that it is submitting for private comment to
influential institutions "such as the Economist Intelligence
Unit." PLD senior advisor Temistocle Montas says that a
general platform will be ready soon and he has promised to
invite Embassy officers to the unveiling. Montas implied
that the PLD has waited for the event, satisfied in the
meantime to see its PRD rivals pulling their own party apart
in the press.

As for rallies and campaigning, both Hipolito and Leonel are
taking a high profile. The President is busy inaugurating
public works projects, particularly rural water supply
projects. Fernandez campaigned this past week in Santiago
and in the New York area, where most of the nation's 52,400
registered expatriate voters live. On February 14-15 the PLD
conducted its second door-to-door canvassing effort to help
voters resolve registration problems.

Estrella of the PRSC faces a rocky road, despite his modest
uptick in the polls. The PRSC's own more recent survey
(February 4-6, from an unrevealed source) shows Fernandez
with 48 percent of voter intentions and Estrella with 24
percent, trailed by Mejia at 12 percent; their
prognosticators say that in a runoff, Estrella would beat
Fernandez 53-47 percent. When renegade PRSC elder statesmen
close to former Vice President Jacinto Peynado met with us
February 12, they seemed resigned to defeat in May. Their
party's candidate had fallen short of expectations "because
he can't make decisions." They acknowledged a shortage of
campaign funds. These dissidents on February 11 issued a
call for "a grand national alliance" of "all political and
social sectors" to agree on "a minimum program of government
for the next eight years." They had no specifics to suggest
to us.



2. (U) Drafted by Bainbridge Cowell.
HERTELL