On February 16th, a few hours after the polls opened for municipal elections in the Dominican Republic, voting machine malfunctions caused the election to be called off. The voting machines left opposition parties off the ballots in many cases, creating an unfair election that privileged the dominant party Dominican Liberation (PLD). As a result, the election was rescheduled for March 15 with only paper ballots in use. Mass protests erupted concerning the legitimacy of elections, especially considering that electoral officials from the Central Electoral Union (JCE) knew about the issue going into the election but did not take the proper action to correct the issue. There is also evidence that the major Dominican Liberation party (PLD) knew about the problem and perhaps instructed the JCE to tamper with the machines. This election postponement indicates a clear case of democratic backsliding in the Dominican Republic.
The night before the scheduled election, JCE officials were seen at PLD headquarters, sparking debate if the electoral malfunction was planned. The fact that no other parties were represented at this meaning is concerning and indicates that the PLD might have ordered the malfunction of the machines. This apparent attempt to steal the election on the day of is the “old school” version of eliminating democracy, as strategic manipulation of elections to make it difficult for the opposition to compete far in advance of the actual election day is more common now.1 President Medina and the PLD are no strangers to strategic manipulation, as in 2015 the constitution was amended to allow Medina to run for a consecutive second term, limiting the ability of the opposition to defeat the incumbent. The main issues apart from the malfunctions specific to these municipal elections involved general fraud, including vote-buying and voter intimidation from both the PLD and the opposition Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), although there were significantly more accusations of vote-buying by the PLD than the PRM. Even if the malfunction of the system was genuine and unplanned, these fraudulent practices are enough to classify the election as one that diminished Dominican democracy.
As a result of the cancellation, protests erupted seeking resignation of the JCE and to secure free and fair elections. Youth and cultural figures such as rappers and artists took to the streets to protest what they perceived as the death of democracy. Nonviolent protests such as these can be effective tools for resisting democratic erosion, as seen in 2019 when protesters successfully forced Medina to back out of a proposed reform to run for a third consecutive term. Nonviolent protests are harder to resist without backfiring and generating more support, and are easier to facilitate discussion with leaders than violent protests.2 However, these protests have so far been unsuccessful in the removal of the JCE leadership.
Despite not holding a free election and with low turnout potentially impacted by the coronavirus, the opposition won major victories in the March 15 election. Carolina Mejía of the opposition party PRM won the mayoral race by a majority in the capital Santo Domingo, becoming the first woman to do so, and ending the 18 year local governance by the PLD. This indicates that the month delay from the initial election date, which had the potential to benefit the PLD due to greater resources that could be spent getting out the vote, did not aid guarantee the election for the incumbent party. This also indicates some level of success of the protests, as the fraud surrounding the election and the immense vote-buying efforts from the PLD did not prevent the opposition from winning.
The Dominican Republic has long been in a tenuous democratic state, categorized by the Freedom House as being “partly-free.” With the presidential election approaching on May 17, if the technological issues at the polls are not resolved the country faces further protests. Based on electoral trends, it will not be a free or fair election, although the opposition victory in the municipal elections shows that there is still hope for democracy in the Dominican Republic.
This article identifies an extremely important instance of democratic decay in the Dominican Republic. Interference in the basic electoral process of a country is a bold and potentially destabilizing act by any party, which could significantly degrade trust in the country’s democratic institutions. In this case, interference with voting machines and potential collusion with an independent electoral body represent egregious violations of the proper conduct of free and fair elections. Although observers of democratic erosion often discuss instances of democratic backsliding that occur one or two degrees removed from the process of electing leaders, which can also have devastating consequences for democracy, this article also shows that even the most foundational aspects of freely choosing government leaders can be degraded. As the post points out, an immediate civil society response ensued, which may be attributable in part to the blatant nature of the government’s actions. However, it can’t be discounted that interference in future elections could go undetected. This could potentially put the Dominican Republic’s democracy in an even more perilous position.