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Glitz, bling and merengue

Local elections in the UK and the Dominican Republic:
a tongue-in-cheek comparison

As many English councils have just had their local elections and as the Dominican Republic’s local and congressional elections take place on 16 May 2006, I thought it might be apposite to share a few thoughts about the similarities (few!) and the differences (many!) between the UK and the DR.

The first thing which will strike the visitor is the noise level associated with electioneering in the DR. One method of hyping the candidate is to use vans and lorries loaded up with ghetto-blasters which pump out catchy jingles at strength 95. Well, they would be catchy jingles if you could understand them. It isn’t a question of language, but of distortion. The volume is so loud that there is distortion through the mammoth-sized speakers, making it hard to hear the “message”. Of course this lack of clarity of message is frequently paralleled in the candidates’ political platform, and compensated for by posters and photos of the candidate plastered all over the vehicle. Should you ever meet the candidate you may be in for a surprise. Many of the photos have been subjected to cosmetic airbrush surgery, or are 15 years old – a bit like being in a time warp.

Noise level generally in the Caribbean is far higher than in the UK so these election vans have to make sure that they overcome all other sounds. Imagine being stuck in a traffic jam and one of these sneaks up behind you. Not only is it deafening but the vibrations of the music actually reverberate through your gut – literally! And yes, there are traffic jams, because a favourite pre-election “persuader” in the DR is to embark on a programme of public works in the three or four months before the election. In Puerto Plata, for example, the main road to Santiago is being repaired and new water pipes are being laid. So lots of digging, lots of dust and lots of traffic hold-ups. And no alternative route to take. I always carry wax earplugs at election time. Doesn’t stop the gut reverberations but it does help the eardrums. It means, of course, you cannot hear any unusual sounds emanating from your car engine, but with a mobile ghetto-blaster up your rear end you wouldn’t anyway.

There are three main political parties and a host of smaller ones. The smaller ones often form alliances with the larger ones as a trade-off for positions in the event of success. This year, by way of a change, two of the larger ones have formed an alliance with each other against the third. The President’s party, the PLD (Dominican Liberation Party) has mauve symbols; the PRD (Dominican Revolutionary Party) has white symbols; and the PRSC (Social Christian Reform Party) has red symbols. This year the PRD and the PRSC have formed an alliance and in a stunning display of originality they are now known as the “pink alliance”. The idea is that they would support each other’s candidates and not field separate candidates to split the vote.

But. . .this alliance is fairly recent and some party faithful have been working on becoming the candidate for either Senate, Chamber of Deputies, Mayor, Aldermen or Councillors for the last three years. Naturally they are loath to sacrifice their chance of running as candidate, so in some areas the “pink alliance” is fielding one candidate and in others the PRD and the PRSC are fielding separate candidates. To say this has led to confusion would be an understatement. It has also led to fisticuffs and the occasional display of machismo using a gun. These are usually fired into the air for effect, rather than fired at anyone, but. . . what goes up must come down, sometimes fatally.

Mostly this has caused injury, not death. Where death has been caused has been in the entirely peaceful endeavour of party faithful fixing posters and stickers advertising their candidate. Unfortunately, ladders sometimes connect with high tension cables and the results can be a fatal electrocution. To date this has happened to three supporters so far this year (and we have eight more days to go). This certainly ain’t Kansas (or even Chalfont St. Peter), Dorothy.

Candidates and their supporters do not canvass door to door here in the DR as they do in the UK. Instead they have “caravans” – motorcades with the candidate sitting on the roof of an SUV via the sun roof, surrounded by supporters in a procession of vehicles. Some vehicles will be trucks with 20 or 30 enthusiastic supporters waving and yelling at the crowds. Plus the ubiquitous mobile ghetto-blaster, of course. These caravans generate much excitement; everyone comes out waving the appropriate coloured flag. Today it will be mauve for the PLD caravan, tomorrow red for the PRSC caravan.

Yes, people come out more than once because often freebies are distributed during caravans. Bear in mind that 40% of the population live below the poverty line, so this isn’t as mercenary as it sounds. Sometimes it is necessary for survival. Of course it costs money to put on a caravan, so a week or so before the event party faithful will be out collecting from businesses in the area through which the caravan will pass. So businesses donate, the caravan is mounted and freebies get distributed. At the risk of sounding a killjoy, I think eardrums might be saved if businesses did their own freebie distribution and cut out the middleman.

Sometimes the planning of these caravans isn’t all it could be. Two separate party caravans may “organise” (I use the term loosely) for the same town or village, on the same day, at the same time. Which means they will meet on the main road through town. . .

Remember the Monty Python sketch when two funeral cortèges turned up at the gates of the cemetery at the same time? What ensued in the sketch was a hilarious battle of wits to gain the upper hand. Sometimes here in the DR the wits measure 9mm. In Nagua, for example, on Sunday 9 April. Two separate caravans were vying for the high street. The result was three people shot, two quite seriously. Fortunately, they all recovered.

However, I wouldn’t want you thinking that political antics in the DR are reminiscent of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party which entertained UK voters in the 1980s and beyond. Politics here is a serious business and as a result passions become inflamed. . . occasionally assisted by rum. I will never forget watching the lower house of Congress on TV a few years back – there was a power cut (yes, they affect Congress too!) so the only lights were from the TV teams filming the event, predominantly Cadena de Noticias. Suddenly in the darkness shots were fired and the leader of the Chamber of Deputies, Alfredo Pacheco, could be seen in a somewhat undignified dive for cover under his desk. It looked like an excerpt from Monty Python but it was real life. Although he did have a funny walk when he stood up. . . Subsequently someone had the bright idea that guns should be banned from the Chamber! Now, why didn’t I think of that? The side of Dominican politics which does have resonance with the Official Monster Raving Loony Party is the immortal quote from the biography of Screaming Lord Sutch describing the party in 2005 as “wannabees, never would bees and some bloody well shouldn’t bees!” Touché.

Lest it be thought that politics in the DR is subsumed in an aura of the Wild West, this year the seven Mayoral candidates for the capital city, Santo Domingo, signed a “pact of mutual respect” to guarantee harmony and no violence. Be honest, can you see Ken Livingstone doing this? Or needing to? Two days later all the major political parties signed a similar pact; so things were really looking up. A scant six hours after signing at the University in Santiago, with much pomp and circumstance, the PRSC withdrew from the accord. The mayoral PRSC candidate for Bani had apparently been offended by the PLD President of the country. As the national paper Diario Libre put it: “Well, that lasted less time than a cockroach in a henhouse”. They have a way with words here. And it has everyone’s attention – Diario Libre online is displaying 86 readers’ letters so far on this one item. Most items get two or three responses, if they get any at all.

We have eight more days of ear-splitting ghetto blasters. The ballot papers are now printed and are being distributed throughout the country to polling stations. Schools are used and will be closed for three days, so children always look forward to elections! The disputes about who is running for which party appear to have been settled. More or less. Give or take one or two. The election observers from the Organisation of American States have arrived. Observers from civic society groups have been having dry runs to practise detecting any fraud. Of course, still to be fixed is the fact that not everyone knows where they will vote – it is supposed to be in the area where you are registered, but some voters’ data are not showing up in the appropriate location. . . The newspapers here started out calling this “dislocation”. Now they are calling it “manipulation”.

Eight more days, then it will be all over – bar the disputes about the tally. That is why the OAS observers are here. If that gets too heated they could borrow an example from Big Brother to the north and consult the Supreme Court. And then turn it into a movie starring John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. Readers are invited to speculate on the casting of which Python character for which Supreme Court judge – remembering that Eric Idle usually gets cast as a woman!

Eight more days. . .

. . .and in a year’s time we start all over again in preparation for the 2008 Presidential election.

PG Author: Ginnie Bedggood

Ginnie Bedggood moved to the Dominican Republic as a resident in 1992 when she was 49 years of age. Prior to that she had spent most of her life in the UK but had also lived in the US, France, the Sahara Desert and Mali. She has travelled extensively in Africa and Europe as well as visiting Russia, Mongolia and China. In UK she worked as a probation officer and University teacher. The jobs she has had in DR are too numerous to mention (!) but she is now "retired", which means she works voluntarily rather than for money.

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