Feb 27, 2020
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‘Democracy Is in Play’: What to Know About Protests in the Dominican Republic

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People had been casting ballots for hours before the Dominican Republic’s leaders said they realized that something was wrong with the voting machines.

In response, the government took the unprecedented step of suspending the nationwide municipal elections on Feb. 16, provoking widespread protests and fears that future votes could be threatened.

The protests reflected anxieties in the Caribbean country and around the world about protecting elections — from foreign meddling, tampering at home and self-inflicted mistakes, like the faulty app recently used in the Iowa caucuses. Concerns are especially acute in the Dominican Republic, where one party has held the presidency for most of the last 24 years, and where the strongmen who ruled for much of the 20th century still cast long shadows.

The Dominican Republic now faces two major elections in three months, amid growing protests and mistrust.

The next protests are planned for Thursday, when the Dominican Republic will celebrate 176 years of independence from Haiti.

“I am sure that a lot of Dominicans will come out to protest on Independence Day,” said Jose Maria Cabral, 31, a filmmaker and protester. “We are here because this can get much worse, the crisis can get much larger,” he added. “The people are ready.”

On Feb. 16, the Dominican Republic held municipal elections for four hours before officials realized that the electronic voting machines were malfunctioning, electoral board officials said.

Election officials found that about 60 percent of the country was affected, with voters unable to see complete ballots.

“On many of the machines you could only see one party on the ballot, sometimes two or three, but you could never see all of the parties on a ballot,” said Mr. Cabral.

As the extent of the problem became clear, election officials suspended the vote. “The electronic vote failed us that morning,” Julio César Castaños Guzmán, the electoral board president, told party delegates days later.

Officials also admitted that, at least a day before the election, they knew of a problem with the voting machines but thought it would be easily fixed.

“We were warned, but not of the magnitude of the problem,” Mr. Castaños Guzmán said. Referring to people who helped set up the system, he said, “They told us it was an issue that could be fixed the second the machines were installed.”

After suspending the vote, the electoral board scheduled a new election for March 15, 30 days after the original date, as the Constitution mandates. The board said polling places would use only paper ballots. Any ballots that were submitted in February would be destroyed.

The board also suspended its national technical director and enlisted the Organization of American States, a United Nations-like group that represents 35 Western Hemisphere nations, to audit the automated voting system.

“This audit will be complete and binding in its results,” the O.A.S. said in a statement.

The Dominican Republic also faces a presidential election on May 17, increasing the pressure to make sure its election system works and is trusted.

The February malfunction was not the first time the country had trouble with an automated voting system. During the 2016 presidential election, the electoral board took 13 days to count votes that were cast electronically.

International and domestic organizations that monitored past Dominican elections have witnessed instances of illegal campaigning and found indicators of vote-buying. To some voters, February’s suspended election seemed like a warning about corruption — or even recalled memories of when the army interrupted vote-counting in 1978, as the country slowly emerged from decades of authoritarianism.

Shortly after the elections were suspended, hundreds of protesters marched in Santo Domingo, the capital. Thousands more have marched around the country since, and protests have included cacerolazos, in which people bang on pots and pans from their homes.

Many of the protesters called for the electoral board’s resignation, but Eduardo Sánchez, a founding member of Somos Pueblo, an activist group in Santo Domingo, said the resulting vacancies would take too long to fill.

Instead, Somos Pueblo and other protesters are calling for international and local watchdogs to monitor the upcoming election and ensure there is no fraud by playing an active role. They are also demanding transparency from Dominican officials.

“This calls for an unprecedented solution,” Mr. Sánchez said.

The electoral board’s measures have not been enough to counter the growing distrust, said Orlando Jorge Mera, a delegate for the leading opposition party, the Modern Revolutionary Party.

“It could not have just been negligence or a lack of quality control, it seems there was some sabotage,” he said.

Many protesters and political parties believe that the governing party, the Dominican Liberation Party, which has held the presidency for the past 16 years, tried to take advantage of the malfunctioning machines, Mr. Jorge Mera said.

A mayoral candidate of Santo Domingo, Bartolomé Pujals Suarez, who was supposed to be on the ballot for Alianza País, said that the board acted “in a way that pleases the governing party.”

“The board does not guarantee elections that are free and democratic,” he said. “They are at the service of the government, and the government is not preparing to give up power.”

“Dominican democracy is in play,” Mr. Pujals Suarez said.

The Dominican Republic had its first peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to another in 1978 — following 12 years under the strongman Joaquín Balaguer, civil war and U.S. intervention, and 30 years under the dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Now, the nation has one of the highest electoral participation rates in Latin America, said Ramona Hernández, the director of the Dominican Studies Institute of the City University of New York.

“Despite everything that you hear, the people participate in the electoral process,” she said. “They believe in this thing, and this is why we worry.”

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