SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (CNN) -- With more than 10 percent of the polling stations reporting their results late Friday, President Leonel Fernandez was leading the Dominican Republic's presidential election with more than 53 percent, an elections official said.
In second place was Dominican Revolutionary Party leader Miguel Vargas Maldonado, with 41.2 percent, followed by Amable Aristy Castro of the Social Christian Reformist Party, with 4.6 percent.
Fernandez, who is seeking his third term as president, needs a majority to avoid a runoff.
Leading up to the election, polls indicated strong support for incumbent Leonel Fernandez who rescued a flagging economy over the last four years.
Key to the 54-year-old president's popularity was his adroit handling of the economy, which is among the fastest-growing in the region, Hakin said.
"His economic management team is expert, it is disciplined, it is focused, it is honest and that is the core of his appeal," said Christopher Mitchell, professor of politics at New York University and an expert on Latin America.
Born in Santo Domingo and raised in New York City, Fernandez first won the presidency in 1996 as a liberal, after conservative Joaquin Balaguer lost the tight grip on power he had held for most of the prior three decades.
Fernandez proved popular during his first term, when he was credited with helping to improve the impoverished nation's economy. But the constitution did not allow for a second consecutive presidential term, and he was replaced in 2000 by Hipolito Mejia, an agronomist whose rule was marked by massive corruption that riddled the banking system.
From 2000 to 2004, Mejia's watch was marked by a weak international economy and a series of domestic bank failures.
Shortly after returning to office, Fernandez proposed building the Caribbean's first subway in the Dominican capital city of Santo Domingo, going as far as to appoint to his Cabinet a secretary for the metro.
Though the massive publicly funded effort remains unfinished, its 14-kilometer north-south line opened in February, drawing criticism for its cost -- estimated by some at $700 million -- and praise for its ambition.
"It's taken by many in the country as an index of modernity, an indication that the country is arriving and maturing in the modern world," Mitchell said.
The president, too, has changed, recently laying claim to the legacy of former President Balaguer, thereby signaling a rightward move for his Dominican Liberation Party, or PLD, Mitchell said.
"It's a measure of his political suppleness that he has made that transition seemingly effortlessly, and has been able to bring the party with him," he said.
If Fernandez fails to win an outright majority, a second round of voting would be held, which could give Dominican Revolutionary Party leader Miguel Vargas Maldonado a second shot and third-place candidate Amable Aristy Castro of the Social Christian Reformist Party the chance to play kingmaker.
"If it were go go to a second round, there would certainly be speculation about some kind of alliance between one of the two remaining candidates and Aristy, because his votes, in theory, would make the difference," Mitchell said.
The next president can count on facing plenty of challenges. The cost of food and energy -- both of which are imports here -- has shot up in recent months. And there may be less money to pay for them. Dominicans are heavily dependent on remittances from the United States, which have been plummeting with the value of the dollar.
Some 42 percent of the country's 10 million residents live in poverty, and unemployment exceeds 15 percent. Economic growth has not been paralleled by investment in infrastructure. As a result, blackouts are common and public services need help.
Last year, the average Dominican made $9,200.
Still, the nation remains a magnet for its even poorer neighbor on the Island of Hispaniola: Haiti. Many Haitians cross the border to find work.
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