By Manuel Jimenez
SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - Ruling party candidate Danilo Medina claimed victory on Monday in the Dominican Republic's hotly disputed presidential election, avenging his defeat 12 years ago by opposition candidate Hipolito Mejia.
With the official count in Sunday's voting 99 percent complete, Medina and the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) held a 4 percentage point lead over Mejia, the candidate for the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), according to official results.
"With this victory I want to unite the Dominican Republic," Medina, 60, told a small group of supporters and PLD leaders at a ruling party office in the capital.
"I have said that in this campaign I wasn't competing for the presidency of the republic, I am building on a dream to end social injustice and put my people on a better path toward progress and well-being," he said.
There was no immediate concession speech from Mejia.
PRD officials defiantly accused the Central Electoral Board of vote-rigging and fraud, even after U.S. Ambassador Raul Yzaguirre endorsed the election as "a triumph of democracy."
"We have our own vote count," said Cesar Cedeno, who ran Mejia's campaign and openly questioned the 51 percent to 47 percent margin giving Medina an outright first-round victory.
"We won these elections and we're going to prove it to the country," Cedeno said.
Both parties accused each other of vote-buying as ballots were still being cast on Sunday. But election observers, while confirming some of those reports, had said the cases were isolated and had no impact on the outcome.
"Our observations and evaluation basically coincide with the results made public by the Central Electoral Board," said Daniel Lobato, an election observer from Chile.
He did not elaborate but Emanuel Esquea Guerrero, a PRD delegate on the Central Electoral Board, accused it of skewing the vote count, and concealing some voter tally sheets, to favor Medina.
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.
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 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 Fernandez administration.
(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Beech)