By Manuel Jimenez
Santo Domingo (Reuters) - Ruling party candidate Danilo Medina is looking for revenge in Sunday's presidential election in the Dominican Republic 12 years after he lost in a landslide to opposition candidate Hipolito Mejia.
Most opinion polls appear give him the edge, showing Medina of the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) leading by a margin of 5 percentage points over Mejia for the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD).
But it remains far from certain that Medina, 60, will be able to secure the 50 percent necessary for an outright first-round victory, with four other minor party candidates also contesting the election, though they draw less than 3 percent combined in polling.
Voting centers open at 6 a.m. on Sunday and will stay open until 6 p.m. in the Caribbean nation of 10 million people, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
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.
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. While the PRD is considered to be slightly to the left of the PLD, both parties are 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, down 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 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 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.
The election campaign was marred by several clashes between rival party supports that led to two deaths and six injuries. With a close vote expected, tensions have risen in recent days as opposition politicians reported the alleged sale of voter identity cards and accused electoral tribunal officials of political bias.
The president of the Central Electoral Board, Roberto Rodriguez, issued a statement expressing concern that unidentified people were seeking to "stain an electoral process" by spreading "false rumors."
Voter turnout could also be affected by days of torrential rains over much of the country hampering logistics especially in rural areas.
At least 200 foreign observers, including a group of 70 from the Organization of American States are monitoring voting along with about 3,000 local observers on behalf of several civil society organizations.
Several groups, including the National Council of Private Enterprise have announced they will conduct exit polls which can only be released after polls close.
Election officials say they expect to begin issuing preliminary results by 10 p.m., with official winner declared before midnight.
(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Doina Chiacu)