By Manuel Jimenez
Santo Domingo (Reuters) - Early results in presidential elections in the Dominican Republic show ruling party candidate Danilo Medina headed for revenge 12 years after he lost in a landslide to opposition candidate Hipolito Mejia.
With 30 percent of votes counted Medina, the candidate for the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), held nearly a 5 percentage point lead (51.4 percent-46.7 percent) over Mejia and the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), according to official election results.
That would be enough for Medina, 60, to secure an outright first-round victory.
Current President Leonel Fernandez of the PLD, a New York-raised lawyer and academic, is barred from running again after serving two consecutive four-year terms in the Caribbean nation of 10 million people, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. He succeeded Mejia to the presidency in 2004.
Voting was delayed in some polling stations in the capital due to wet weather and late-arriving election workers, and a handful of incidents of violence were reported. But otherwise election day took place relatively smoothly, according Roberto Rosario, president of the Central Electoral Board.
Both parties accused each other of vote buying. Election observers confirmed some of those reports but said the cases were isolated and had no impact on the outcome.
Shortly after polls closed the head of an observer mission from the Organization of American States, former Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, told a news conference that the election had been a "success," calling it a "fiesta for democracy."
While the Dominican Republic is far wealthier than Haiti, many Dominicans still struggle to satisfy basic needs, prompting some to seek a better life by slipping into nearby Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.
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. Thanks to a constitutional amendment, Dominicans living abroad were also for the first time able to vote for candidates to represent seven overseas districts.
The country 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.
There is little to distinguish the two candidates ideologically. Both have sought to convince voters they will bring change through improved education and job creation. The PLD and the PRD have left-wing roots, though both parties are now pro-business, and back close ties with the United States.
Mejia, 71, who served as president from 2000 to 2004, campaigned on a message of change with a populist slogan, "Llego Papa" (Daddy's Here), that promises a better future "for everyone."
Meanwhile, Medina adopted the slogan "Cambio Seguro" (Change With Certainty), attacking Mejia's record as president from 2000 to 2004, which ended in economic crisis.
Despite leaving office in 2004 in the wake of a major banking scandal that rocked the nation's fragile economy, Mejia remains popular due to his personal charisma and discontent after eight years of PLD rule, including accusations of public corruption and the lingering economic effects of the global recession, which hit the tourism industry hard.
However, in recent years the country has had one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America and has significantly reduced its poverty rate to 34 percent from 44 percent a decade ago.
RUMORS AND ELECTORAL ISSUES
Medina, who studied to be a chemical engineer before becoming a career politician, is a co-founder of the PLD, and a former minister in the administration of Fernandez.
Fernandez's wife, Margarita Cedeno, is running as Medina's vice president. Popular with women voters, Cedeno, a 44-year-old mother of three, used her position as first lady to work for poverty reduction and children and women's issues.
Mejia has accused the Fernandez government of using public money for political advantage by overspending 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.
(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Eric Walsh)