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Opposition declares victory in Dominican Republic's virus-scarred vote


By Ezequiel Abiu Lopez

SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - The Dominican Republic's opposition presidential candidate, Luis Abinader, declared victory late on Sunday, as early results in a poll marked by the coronavirus pandemic showed him poised to end the ruling party's 16-year grip in power.

In preliminary results accounting for 22% of ballots cast, Abinader, 52, of the opposition Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), won 53.3% of the vote, which if sustained would be enough to avoid a runoff election.

Gonzalo Castillo, 59, of the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), whose candidacy was endorsed by President Danilo Medina, was in second place at 37.1% of the vote. Both parties are centrist and pro-business.

Medina, 68, who served two consecutive four-year terms, was ineligible to seek re-election after failing to win sufficient backing for a constitutional change to run again.

"Today we vanquished fear with hope and doubt with determination," Abinader told supporters at his campaign headquarters.

Voters had tasked him, he said, with tackling "the most difficult challenges of our history", namely the country's coronavirus outbreak, one of the worst in Latin America, and its economic impact.

The U.S.educated economist and tourism industry leader, with no prior experience in government, had to briefly suspend appearances last month after himself testing positive for the virus. He says he has since recovered and tested negative.

Abinader said he would seek to re-launch growth in the country of 10.4 million, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, hurt in particular by the blow the pandemic dealt to its key tourism industry.

The PLD's strong economic record does not look to have been enough to compensate for voter grievances over its management of the outbreak, dogged inequality and corruption allegations.

The Caribbean's largest economy, has achieved 7% annual growth over the past decade, but has dropped 38 places in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index during that time to 137th out of 180 countries.

The PLD was also seriously weakened after former President Leonel Fernandez, 66, broke away to form a splinter party in October. The early results put him in a distant third place with 8.6% of the vote.

The presidential and parliamentary elections took place as coronavirus cases continued to hit record daily highs four months after the first reported cases. The country has reported 37,425 cases and 794 deaths.

Critics say the government did not act quickly enough, reopened the economy too soon last month and is too slow with testing.

Meanwhile the Organization of American States said on Sunday one of the nine members of its electoral observation mission had tested positive for coronavirus and been quarantined.

The OAS mission said it had detected lapses in social distancing during the day despite efforts by the authorities, which also imposed measures such as requiring voters to wear face masks and disinfect their hands before casting their ballot.

The government had postponed the elections from May, but would have had to amend the constitution to postpone them again.

Some Dominicans abroad could not vote because of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

(Reporting by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Peter Cooney and Richard Pullin)

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