Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (CNN) -- Preliminary results for Sunday's presidential election in the Dominican Republic gave former lawmaker Danilo Medina an early lead.
Polls closed at 6 p.m. ET in the race, which shaped up as a two-man contest between political veterans.
Medina and former Dominican Republic President Hipolito Mejia were in a close race heading into election day. Four other candidates, between them, didn't surpass 5% in the polls.
With close to half of the ballots counted Sunday night, Medina led with more than 51% of the vote, versus Mejia's 47%. A candidate must garner 50% of the vote plus 1 to avoid a second round of voting.
The election is a rematch of the 2000 presidential contest, where Mejia defeated Medina. Since the end of Mejia's term in 2004, the presidency has been held by Leonel Fernandez, of the centrist Dominican Liberation Party, the same party that Medina belongs to.
Mejia represents the left-leaning Dominican Revolutionary Party.
Some see the candidates as similar in some respects, but passions nonetheless on both sides are strong.
"The truth is that in the Dominican Republic, I would say the national pastime is not baseball. The national sport is politics," said Mauricio De Vegoechea, a political analyst.
The boisterous campaigns stretched from the island to New York, where there is a large population of Dominicans.
Ahead of Sunday's vote, some 200 foreign electoral observers were in the country, and 60,000 police and troops were deployed for security.
"The big difference, obviously, is that one of these candidates was already president and showed us who he was, and the other candidate has certainly been close to the government, but has never held the executive position and is known as a very qualified official," said Javier Cabreja, president of the civic group Citizens' Participation.
Mejia, 71, the former president, has a background in agriculture. He served a previous administration as minister of agriculture, and became involved in politics at an early age.
Medina, 60, was elected to four-year terms as a lawmaker in 1986, 1990 and 1994. He also served as president of the country's House of Representatives. He twice served as secretary of state.
There are more than 6 million registered voters in the country.
Dominicans living abroad were allowed to cast their votes as well, so much attention was paid by the candidates to the Dominican population in the United States, and particularly in New York. About 5% of registered voters live outside the island.
"A lot of my family lives in Santo Domingo, that's our homeland, and we have to support our brothers who are there, working hard," one voter in New York said.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the Dominican Republic is expected to grow between 3.5% and 4% this year. Campaign issues have included discussions whether that growth is trickling down to the average citizen.
"I want there to be in my country social security, better education and better medical services," said another New York Dominican voter, Johnny Hinojosa.
CNN's Camilo Egana and Maria Santana contributed to this report.