Santo Domingo (AFP) - President Danilo Medina appeared set Monday to win re-election by a landslide in the Dominican Republic, capitalizing on an economic boom in the Caribbean tourist paradise despite the fact that millions still live in poverty.
With 58 percent of the results in from Sunday's election, Medina had 62 percent of the vote, according to official figures -- putting him on track for the biggest-ever win in a Dominican presidential election.
It seemed certain that Medina, a member of the Party of Dominican Liberation (PLD), would win a new four-year term outright, without having to face a runoff.
His nearest rival, Luis Abinader of the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), was holding steady at 35 percent of the vote.
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 president, who faced seven challengers, has profited from a divided opposition and the breakup of the once-powerful Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). Abinader, 48, belongs to a break-off PRD faction.
In a country that endured the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961), US military interventions, and lifetime politicians like three-time president Joaquin Balaguer, some voters worry about the PLD's iron grip on power.
Medina, however, can brush that off: he enjoys an 89 percent approval rating, according to a survey by Mexican consultancy Mitofsky, making the 64-year-old the most popular leader in Latin America.
- 'Not a reformist' -
The Dominican Republic's economy is booming thanks to millions of tourism dollars from foreigners flocking to the country's luxury hotels and beaches. It grew seven percent last year and inflation stood at 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.
"The lack of suspense (in the elections) shows how good the economy is. But is that economic performance really inclusive? There's still a lot of work to do," said Gaspard Estrada, head of Latin American studies at French institute SciencesPo.
Fresh off a crushing victory, Medina is unlikely to make any big changes, said the Eurasia Group consultancy.
"Medina will steer clear of additional structural reforms, despite what will be immense political capital," its Latin America analysts said in a note.
"He is not a reformist at heart, and will want to avoid any reforms that erode the PLD?s base of support and dent his legacy."
- Haiti controversy -
Critics complain crime has worsened under Medina, who faces allegations of misusing electoral funds.
He also faces international condemnation over policies that discriminate against the Dominican-born children of Haitian migrant workers.
The Dominican Republic changed its immigration policy in 2013, stripping citizenship from people born to parents without legal residency.
The policy threatened to leave 250,000 people stateless. Medina eventually agreed to restore citizenship to 55,000, but paperwork problems still left thousands of disenfranchised people of Haitian descent unable to vote.
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.
His rival Abinader, a wealthy businessmen of Lebanese ancestry, blamed the president for government corruption and the country's high crime rate.
Projections indicated the PLD would win 24 of the 32 seats in the Senate and 112 of the 190 in the lower house.
It also dominated in local elections, though it was on track to lose the capital Santo Domingo.