Santo Domingo (AFP) - Voting began Sunday in the Dominican Republic's presidential election, where incumbent leader Danilo Medina is tipped to win despite grinding poverty and widespread crime.
Medina, who faces a divided opposition, has an 89 percent approval rating, according to a survey by Mexican consultancy Mitofsky. That makes the 64 year-old the most popular leader in Latin America.
"I'm going to vote for Danilo because he has worked hard for the country, he will win because people want him to continue," said Domingo de la Rosa, who works transporting sugarcane in La Romana, in the country's southeast.
Polls opened at 1000 GMT, and voters can choose from a list of eight presidential candidates.
The head of the electoral commission, Roberto Rosario, on Sunday promised "the most transparent elections in the history of our democracy."
Medina's centrist PLD party has been in power for 12 years in the Spanish-speaking country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with its troubled neighbor, Haiti.
The economy is booming thanks to the millions of dollars foreigners spend visiting the Caribbean tourist haven's luxury hotels and beaches. It grew seven percent last year and inflation stood at a measly 2.3 percent.
But 40 percent of the nation's 10 million people are estimated to live in poverty and the unemployment rate is about 14 percent, according to government figures.
Critics complain that crime has worsened under Medina and say his party has been in power for too long.
Medina also faces allegations of misusing electoral funds, and broad international criticism over policies that discriminate against the Dominican-born children of Haitian migrant workers.
Thousands of these Dominicans never received local papers and cannot vote in their own country. They say his government has intentionally marginalized them for racist, economic and social reasons.
- A landslide victory? -
Surveys of voting intentions by pollsters such as Gallup indicate that Medina will get around 60 percent of the vote, enough to win the election outright with no runoff.
His nearest rival, social democrat Luis Abinader, has 29 percent support, the survey showed. He is hoping to force Medina into a run-off.
Many of Medina's supporters tout the state of the economy, and improvements in education, as his major accomplishments.
When Medina was elected in 2012 he was supposed to be limited to one four-year stint as president. But he passed a reform in 2015 that has allowed him to run for re-election.
The 48 year-old Abinader belongs to Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), a break-off faction of the formerly powerful Revolutionary Dominican Party (PRD).
Abinader has focused heavily on blaming Medina for government corruption and the country's high crime rate.
"We have two options here: democracy, or one-party dictatorship," said Abinader, a wealthy businessmen of Lebanese ancestry, at a recent public appearance in a working class neighborhood.
Ahead of the vote, election monitors met with opposition members who complained that the president had an unfair campaign funds advantage, and that his party controls the government agencies that make key electoral decisions.
Medina shrugs off the criticism.
"Businessmen give more to the person who is going to win ... so now I have the privilege of being able to pay for more advertising time," the president said.
Polls are set to close at 2200 GMT. Some 6.7 million of the Dominican Republic's 10 million residents are eligible to vote.
Also being elected are 32 senators, 190 lower house deputies, and local officials from 26 different parties.