Dominican Republic guide 2016: Political stability
Popular, not populist.
The Dominican Republic’s president has a strong and consistent approval rating. The country’s thriving economy is certainly a big factor in his popularity, but he has also lived up to his pledges to develop education, infrastructure and security.
Medina is undeniably popular. His approval rating has remained consistently above 60%, across many surveys. In many polls, his approval rating still touches 90%. No serious independent analysts expect a surprise at the polls in May when Medina runs for re-election.
However, while Latin America has seen other popular presidents in the recent past, they have typically been populists; a cult of personality draped in nationalism often uniting populations through the portrayal of malevolent, usually foreign, forces. Their economic policies have tended to come from the ‘unorthodox’ category and their longer-term financial impact can be seen in Venezuela’s current fight against default and economic collapse and in Argentina where president Mauricio Macri has taken on a difficult inheritance.
But, the economic reality of the Dominican Republic is very different from these examples. Growth is the fastest in the region and the IMF praised the country’s economic and financial progress following its most recent Article IV visit in December 2015. That the Dominican Republic can combine economic and political stability is an important part of the country’s appeal to international companies and investors. So how has Medina managed to earn popularity without populism?
A part of the answer is the economic growth the country has enjoyed under his first administration. The economy has produced hundreds of thousands of new jobs and boosted average GDP per head. A strong financial system has extended into the growing wealth of the lower social classes, extending credit and financial inclusion and sharing the economy’s newfound wealth.
However, economic development is not the sole reason for Medina’s popularity. Rather it is the president’s ability to appeal to all sections of the country, whether rural or urban, which drives his approval ratings.
Administrative minister José Ramón Peralta says that comes from a powerful, simple and yet rare strategy of delivering on election promises. “When we were campaigning in the rural communities we would often hear the comment: ‘You are only here for our votes today, you tell us what we want to hear but after you’ve won the election we won’t see you again until the next election’,” says Peralta. “That comment stayed with president Medina and so after he was elected we implemented a programme of surprise visits whereby the president visits rural communities to keep a strong connection and help deliver practical and financial support to enable them to develop in a way they want.”
These surprise visits, covered in the local media, have boosted the president’s support across the country, and not just in the areas directly concerned. A key part of these visits is the provision of practical support for local businesses. The government, in cooperation with the agricultural bank and Banreservas, the state-owned commercial bank, delivers business training (including support for identifying and targeting domestic and international markets for local products and services) and financial support through a myriad of financial projects aimed at these rural communities. Peralta says that the visits not only leave a legacy of economic growth for these communities but he also attributes the relative low rates of rural migration to cities to this initiative.
The president has also delivered on his 2012 election pledge to spend 4% of GDP on education. This has led to a radical improvement in the education infrastructure (23,000 new classrooms built in the past three years – more than in the previous 60 years) and quality (teachers’ pay has doubled and training improved). Illiteracy has almost been eradicated. The government has also consolidated what was a fragmented school day and now provides school meals. This increases the quality of children’s nutrition and their school hours, helping more parents to get jobs and boost family incomes.
With the completion of the bulk of infrastructure development plans, Medina intends in his second administration to free up resources for a ‘Digital DR’ scheme to provide computer and internet access to all schoolchildren in the country, preparing the economy for future skills-based competition.
Security in the country has also been improved, with crime rates down from 24.3 per 100,000 people to 16.2%. Progressive immigration policies have been enacted to manage economic migration from neighbouring countries, with the aim of boosting economic development and stability.
“We are working towards building the prosperity of everyone in the country – and not just certain groups,” says Peralta. “By clearly delivering what we committed to in the last election campaign we are confident we will be given the broadest of mandates to carry on our work.”