By Manuel Jimenez
SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - Voters in the Dominican Republic's presidential election on Sunday will choose between two candidates vying to be seen as agents of change, even though one represents the ruling party and the other is a former president.
Making the choice even harder, both candidates represent center-left political parties in a race devoid of major ideological differences and lacking a conservative option.
Polls show Danilo Medina, 60, of the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), leading by a comfortable margin of 5 to 10 percentage points over Hipolito Mejia, 70, who is hoping to return to power for the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) eight years after a failed re-election bid.
"There isn't a young, fresh, new voice," said Eric Farnsworth, a Latin America expert at the Council of the Americas in New York. "So what you have is both candidates trying to position themselves as the one who is most competent and trustworthy to run the government."
While the Dominican Republic is far wealthier than Haiti, its poor neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, many Dominicans still struggle to satisfy basic needs, prompting some to seek a better life by slipping in to nearby Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.
The Dominican Republic is a popular resort spot, famous for its white sandy beaches and golf courses, but it also is the leading Caribbean transshipment point for South American drugs destined for the United States and Europe.
FIRST LADY RUNNING FOR VP
Medina, a chemical engineer and co-founder of the PLD, is a former minister of the presidency of the current administration of President Leonel Fernandez, 58, a New York-raised lawyer and academic who is barred from running again after serving two consecutive four-year terms.
Fernandez's wife, Margarita Cedeno, is running as Medina's vice president. Popular with women voters, Cedeno, a 44-year-old mother of two young daughters, used her position as first lady to work for poverty reduction and children and women's issues.
"She's a strong and independent woman and her support cuts across all ages and classes," said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University in Miami who also serves as Fernandez's political consultant. Medina enjoyed a 20 percent advantage over Mejia among women voters, he said.
Mejia established a large lead early in the race, in part due to government austerity measures in the face of the global economic recession that hit the Caribbean hard.
Mejia burnished his message of change with a populist campaign slogan, "Llego Papa" (Daddy's Here), that promised a better future "for everyone."
Medina hit back with a campaign slogan promising "Cambio Seguro" (Change With Certainty), attacking Mejia's record as president from 2000 to 2004, when a major banking scandal rocked the nation's economy.
While both candidates talk of change, their proposals are vague, referring to the importance of improvements in education and investment in tourism.
REFERENDUM ON CURRENT PRESIDENT
With little to distinguish the two candidates ideologically, the election had turned into a referendum on Fernandez's presidency, Farnsworth said.
"The question is do voters want change, mixed in with a bit more of the same," he added, noting that Medina and Fernandez have worked closely together for decades as disciples of PLD founder Juan Bosch.
Fernandez's popularity sank during the recession as living standards fell but he has bounced back strongly this year, Gamarra said, crediting that in part to the start of a series of public works, including a major expansion of the metro system in the capital, Santo Domingo, inaugurated in February.
Mejia has accused the Fernandez government of using public money for political advantage by over-spending on expensive public works projects in the major cities.
Mejia's campaign repeatedly has attacked alleged government corruption, accusing the PLD of abandoning agriculture in favor of massive food imports to benefit businessmen linked to the ruling party.
Notoriously loose-tongued, Mejia saw his campaign lose steam in recent weeks after a series of gaffes, undermining his working-class support base. In a news conference two weeks ago he said corruption in the country was so bad that housemaids had become so untrustworthy they were capable of stealing food off their employers' dinner tables to take home to their boyfriends.
He also insulted the PRD's president, Miguel Vargas, who he beat in a March primary that Vargas denounced as fraudulent, causing a split in the party.
In April, Mejia declined an invitation to face Medina in what was supposed to the first of two scheduled debates between the leading candidates.
His jokes and musings during TV interviews were a feature of the campaign during which Mejia largely refrained from discussing his policies. He referred journalists to a campaign manifesto booklet, saying, "Read them, they're all in there."
The campaign, which draws to a close Friday, has been relatively peaceful campaign compared to previous ones with two deaths and six injuries reported in clashes between government supporters and the opposition.
Four other minor party candidates are in the election but they drew less than 3 percent in polling.
About 5 percent of the nation's 6.5 million eligible voters live abroad, including 220,000 registered voters in the United States, mostly in the New York area.
(Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by David Adams, Tom Brown and Bill Trott)