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Dominican vote: personalities over issues. Next president faces high unemployment, inflation

Nearly 3 million Dominicans head to the polls today to vote for a new president, following a campaign that focused on the personalities of the top three candidates rather than the issues. The ruling party is affiliated with the Socialist International, another is openly conservative, and a third is Marxist. But there has been no ideological debate.

Each of the main candidates -- Jacobo Majluta Azar, Joaqu'in Balaguer, and Juan Bosch Gavino -- is promising less corruption and a more competent handling of an almost identical economic program.

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Nevertheless, all three candidates have been able to muster large crowds in the torrential rain here in the capital.

Although the mood is one of festivity, the streets are guarded by the armed military and police. The election results are expected to be close, and in a country which has had little nonviolent change of its ruling parties, many Dominicans say that anything could happen this weekend. So far five people have died in election violence, which one observer said was ``under par for a Dominican election.

Most pollsters give the lead to Mr. Majluta, 47 year-old former Finance Minister, who held the presidency for six weeks in 1982, after the suicide of Antonio Guzm'an Fern'andez. He is the candidate of the ruling Dominican Revolutionary Party.

Running close behind him is Mr. Balaguer, 78, who was President from 1964 to 1978. A respected poet and generally thought to be a brilliant intellectual, he leads the Reformist Party. Recently he publicly admitted that his eyesight is nearly gone.

The third main contender is Mr. Bosch, 75, of the Liberation Party. He is a noted author of fiction, a self-proclaimed Marxist, and the first elected President after the death, in 1961, of ruling right-wing strong man Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Bosch's seven-month-old presidency was overthrown by a military coup in 1962.

Among the enthusiastic throng who fill the streets each night, the issues are few. But observers say that the real issue is the economy. The official unemployment rate is 25 percent and the official inflation rate 17 percent. Outside observers say these figures are unrealistically low.

Many Dominicans have been pressed by outgoing President Salvador Jorge Blanco's austerity measures which increased interest rates and raised the prices of basic commodities. Traditional crops -- sugar, rice, corn -- have not been profitable on world markets. Rural unemployment is high, sparking migration to the city. About 60 percent of Dominicans are now urban dwellers, many drawn by jobs in industrial free zones where goods are moved tariff free.

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