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Can I count your vote? – Dunno, can you…?

“Eight more days and it will all be over,” I said in my previous article about the Dominican Republic Congressional and Municipal Elections of May 2006. Ha! That represents hollow laughter. British Expat Magazine’s Deputy Editor’s prophetic label of “Can I count on your vote?” appended to the earlier article prompted me to write a follow up. Did he know that vote tallying was going to produce the circus which it has? Did he know we were going to have to wait an interminable five weeks to finally get the results?

The previous article examines the lead-up to these elections. Election Day, 16 May, came and went pretty peaceably as it so happened. The electorate were given a very large voting paper to decide on Senators, Deputies, Mayor, Aldermen and Councillors. Photos of the worthy aspirants were included because not everyone in the DR can read. Even then not all could see: one elderly lady who could not see the photos clearly duly marked one of them. Then she held her voting paper up close to her eyes and remonstrated with her daughter, “Hey! You didn’t tell me I voted for Baldy.” That was a reference to the political party of the ex-President, Hipolito Mejia.

In order to have a ballot paper issued voters must produce their cedula or ID card. The practice of buying cedulas is well established in the DR; in a survival society the offer of 1500 pesos (just under US$50) to buy a vote can be very tempting. At one polling station the buyers arrived late. Several of the early bird electorate were most annoyed! They had already voted and their fingers were marked by the tell-tale dye signifying this. El Nacional newspaper reported that one voter tried everything to get rid of the dye on his finger so as to be able to pass for not having voted and thus claim his 1500 pesos. He tried Brillo pads, lime, even acid. But he didn’t go quite so far as the voter who cut his finger and swore blind that his blood was a different colour to everyone else’s…

Tallying of these votes has been slow. That is British understatement! Counting is carried out in the municipalities, which each have a Junta Municipal Electoral; the results are passed to the Junta Central Electoral, which publishes bulletins as results come in. The JCE is run by judges and these happen to have been appointed by the previous Government. The first few bulletins had the President’s party and the main opposition alliance running neck and neck, even though all the indicators were that the country had swung massively in favour of the President’s party. It was the opposition PRD Government, after all, which had plunged the country into crippling debt necessitating IMF involvement. So the opposition-appointed JCE was issuing selective bulletins.

Even the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the DR, Cardinal Nicolas, was heard to remark: “Some people cannot bear to lose.” The delays gave rise to all sorts of speculations; it began to look as if the Government was under pressure to negotiate a “deal” in order to get any results at all published. Number massaging is not new here; at the last Presidential election in 2004 armed thugs turned up at a number of the polling stations to “encourage” people to vote a certain way. Fortunately this was spotted by civic observer groups and exposed.

Aggrieved “losers” who claim fraud have irresponsibly suggested their supporters take to the streets. In the first week after the polls closed there were 11 election-related killings, not including the young man in Villa Isabela who said he would kill himself if his party didn’t win. He took Tres Pasitos (rat poison) before the final tally was known although his party had been defeated in the local area. Politicians encouraging insurrection is not just about causing chaos; it is aimed at forcing the Government to take repressive measures for which they can then be castigated.

In Puerto Plata, where I live, on the day after the election word was out that the existing Mayor’s party was losing. So the Town Hall staff downed tools, walked out and locked the doors to the Town Hall. They all went and gathered opposite the Town Hall in Parque Central. The El Nacional reporter asked what it was all about; one staff member bemoaned how ungrateful the residents of Puerto Plata were and how much the Mayor’s party had done for them. “Faced with this ingratitude none of us have the heart to work,” he said. And not just the Town Hall; everyone in the Tax Office downed tools also.

Three days after the election there were still no definitive results. In Puerto Plata I noticed a large gathering of people near the blocked off JME building. As I own a house in the street where the gathering was, I went to see if the tenant was OK. No problem. When I got home I read El Nacional to discover that this was a “protest”. It was very quiet and peaceful when I drove through the gathering, so the protest didn’t amount to much. Or maybe it was lunchtime? The local JME officials clearly felt threatened, however. The local paper El Faro carried a piece from the head of the local Junta saying, “If anything happens to us or our families, you’ll know who did it.”

The following day, at the national level, there was a rumour that vote counting had stopped. The Organisation of American States observers, including the British, French, Italian and EU Ambassadors plus some high-ranking Catholic Church dignitaries, descended on the JCE in Santo Domingo to investigate. They were told that it hadn’t stopped; apparently one JCE staff member had phoned the municipalities to tell them to stop but this wasn’t “official JCE policy”.

I can imagine Andy Ashcroft’s face (the UK Ambassador) on being told that one unauthorised maverick employee had the power to paralyse the entire count and to make the inhabitants think some sort of a coup was in place. The Ambassadors gave a press conference to inform the populace since no-one else was. Next day another JCE judge denied there had been a maverick employee: voting had never stopped, whoever started that rumour must have had evil intent and their own agenda. So the Ambassadors fabricated that one out of thin air? More than their jobs were worth, indubitably!

Rumour abounds in situations like these and of course rumour and myth are the stuff of life in the Dominican Republic. Not so long ago a security guard and his friend robbed the bank which employed the guard. The friend took off for Haiti. The guard stayed in the DR and succumbed to pressure from his girlfriend to have a lavish wedding. He bought a spell from a witch which would make him invisible to the authorities, and thus a man who earned 4,000 pesos a month threw a huge reception costing 300,000 pesos. Unfortunately the witch must have been having an off day. The robber got arrested at his own wedding.

By day six the final bulletin had not been issued. The country was becoming restless. Some three million people had voted. How long can it possibly take for that number to be counted? Well, if you’re Florida, several weeks, of course. Many of the local counting centres had been “militarised”. This meant that they were under the control of the electoral police, a group made up of ordinary police and soldiers. In one area eight boxes of ballot papers were discovered being driven to the JME; the contents of the boxes would have altered the existing outcome. The electricity utility, in a stunning act of thoughtlessness, decided to give one area an 18-hour blackout. With temperatures in the low 90s [mid-30s] this did nothing to calm passions. In one area the rumour of “curfew” circulated; transport shut down and students at evening classes were sent home. Cardinal Nicolas went on record as saying that the JCE needed judges who could count…

Eight days after the election the final bulletin, Bulletin No. 18 was issued. This was not exactly “final”. The country then went into the impugnaciones phase. According to DR law the aggrieved can then dispute the results on the grounds of fraud, error, prevarication, the acceptance of illegal votes, the rejection of legal ones or obstruction caused by violence, force, threat or bribery. Or any other serious irregularity. Might as well start all over again!

Initially 170 disputed results were registered. This grew to 289 before the time deadline prevented any more. For the next four weeks the Junta Central Electoral judges heard the disputed cases. Eventually, at the end of June they made their pronouncement. Whilst they did indeed subtract votes from some candidates and add them to others, none of this affected the actual allocation of seats. Bulletin 18 and its results stood! There had indeed been a massive swing to the President’s PLD party in the Senate, Chamber of Deputies and in the municipalities.

Lest the impugnacionces be viewed as a waste of time it should be remembered that they have an inbuilt functionality. Time spent hearing disputes gives the aggrieved a chance not to “lose face” in front of their supporters. They can be as indignant as they wish over being “robbed” of their expected result. It also allows for a collective mourning process by the losers; a licking of wounds before moving on. And I write the day after the World Cup Final!

So now it really is all over. The winners have been given their certificates. Ironically the ceremony where this was done was graced by yet another power outage. Possibly a portent of things to come, but we hope not. The new Congress takes up office in mid-August. Currently the existing Congress is busy voting pensions to those who lost their seats! Ah well! At least we don’t have hanging chads!

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