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Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina on course to be re-elected

Early returns have given presidential incumbent Danilo Medina a strong lead in the Dominican Republic. The election is seen as a referendum on a ruling party that has won four of the last five votes.

Initial results on Sunday night showed center-left President Danilo Medina (pictured above) with 61 percent of the vote.

His nearest rival - the businessman and social democrat Luis Abinader of the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) - held between 29 percent and 35 percent. The 48-year-old Abinader ran for vice president in 2012 but has never held elected office.

The remaining six candidates, including the first two women

running for the presidency

in a Dominican election, held a combined 4 percent of votes, according to early polls.

Also being elected are 32 senators and 190 lower house deputies and local officials, with candidates from 26 different parties participating.

If the voting proportions remain consistent nationwide, Medina will surpass the 50-percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff election on June 26. Final results are expected on Monday.

Electoral authorities said nearly 7 million people were expected to have voted, including thousands around the world and in the United States, mostly in large Dominican enclaves in New York and Florida.

Medina, an economist, enjoyed consistently high popularity ratings in the last few months of his latest four-year term. He reportedly had an 89-percent approval rating, according to a survey by Mexican consultancy firm Mitofsky, making him the most popular leader in Latin America.

A popular leader

Medina's Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) has been in power for 12 years in the Spanish-speaking country of 10.4 million people, which shares the island of Hispaniola with its neighbor, Haiti.

After his re-election in 2012, Medina said his term would be limited to one four-year stint. Last year, however, he passed a reform that allowed him to run for re-election.

"I won't be satisfied until progress reaches everyone, when growth means a table full of food for everyone," the 64-year old said at a rally to close his campaign on Thursday.

Medina has benefited from an economy that grew 7 percent in 2015, better than any other country in Latin America or the Caribbean, and increased funding for social programs that have strong popular support.

Dominikanische Republik Wahlen 2016

During the campaign, Abinader accused Medina of corruption and of misusing electoral funds

Corruption allegations

During the campaign, Abinader focused on allegations of corruption surrounding Medina, as well as promises to cut social spending and reduce crime. He also accused Medina of misuse of electoral funds.

Medina's campaign chief, Joao Santana, returned to Brazil in February to face charges that the Brazilian engineering conglomerate Grupo Odebrecht had paid him funds taken from Brazil's state oil company Petrobras in offshore accounts to finance the 2014 election campaign of

suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff

.

Medina has not spoken publicly about the Petrobras affair, and Santana has called the allegations against him "baseless."

Voting issues

Sunday's vote was marred by long lines, technical difficulties and staff walkouts, leaving some of the voters who cast their ballots at the more than 16,000 polling stations disgruntled.

Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana, heading an Organization of American States observer mission, acknowledged problems but played down their significance. "The important thing is that people are voting," he said.

jbh/cmk (Reuters, AP, AFP)