By Manuel Jimenez
SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - Ruling party candidate Danilo Medina claimed victory on Monday in the Dominican Republic's presidential election, avenging his defeat 12 years ago by opposition candidate Hipolito Mejia.
With the vote count in Sunday's poll 99 percent complete, Medina and the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) held a 4 percentage point lead over Mejia, the candidate for the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), according to official election results.
"With this victory I want to unite the Dominican Republic," Medina, 60, told a small group of supporters and PLD leaders at a PLD office in the capital.
"I want to recognize my adversaries publicly, because in this election campaign they forced me to be the best," he added.
Holding out an olive branch to his 71-year-old rival, he added that, "Hipolito Mejia should feel good because the Dominican people vindicated him through this campaign."
There has been no concession speech from Mejia, and PRD officials have accused the Central Electoral Board of fraud, saying it manipulated the results in the ruling party's favor.
But the 51 percent to 47 percent margin was enough for Medina to secure an outright first-round victory if confirmed by the final official results.
President Leonel Fernandez of the PLD, a New York-raised lawyer and academic, was 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 in 2004.
Fernandez's wife, Margarita Cedeno, ran 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 to reduce poverty and on children and women's issues.
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, said the election had been a success and called it a "fiesta for democracy."
ONE-THIRD IN POVERTY
While the Dominican Republic is far wealthier than Haiti, more than one third of Dominicans still live under the poverty line according to the World Bank, 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, most living in the New York area. Thanks to a constitutional amendment, Dominicans living abroad were 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 was little to distinguish the two candidates ideologically. Both sought to convince voters they would bring change through improved education and job creation. The PLD and the PRD have left-wing roots, though both parties are pro-business, and back close ties with the United States.
Mejia, 71, served as president from 2000 to 2004.
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.
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.
(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Tom Brown and Vicki Allen)