SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Meet the candidates:
The stage lights pop on, and Johnny Ventura strides through a 10-foot portrait of himself, then rips into one of the songs that made him a merengue legend worldwide. Ventura is launching his autobiography, "A Little of Me," in a hotel ballroom here. He's also campaigning as an opposition party's candidate for deputy mayor of the Dominican capital.
Across town, Roberto Salcedo is joking with residents from atop a Toyota Land Cruiser as his caravan crawls through their middle-class barrio. Salcedo, after all, is a comedian. He's also an actor, television producer and the ruling party's candidate for mayor of Santo Domingo.
And in the La Mancha Room of a five-star hotel elsewhere in town, Rafael Corporal is performing for the American Chamber of Commerce, promising to transform Santo Domingo into a trash-free Paris or Miami. Corporal is an actor, a variety show host and an opposition party candidate for mayor.
In all, at least half a dozen singers, actors and television stars are competing in May 16 mayoral and legislative elections that are seen as an important barometer of democracy's condition here and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
At a time when some of the region's democracies are threatened by voter apathy, political corruption or upper-class nostalgia for autocracies past, most analysts here see the sudden appearance of candidates from the farandula--old Spanish for a troupe of farcical players--as an effort, however cynical, to rekindle public interest in electoral politics.
"It shows that democracy is ill, but that it's trying to get well," said Anibal de Castro, a prominent publisher and political analyst in Santo Domingo. "The old political parties are trying to use the popularity of these personalities to recover their own popularity."
That view mirrors the findings of a recently released poll on the political and democratic culture in the Dominican Republic. The survey, financed partly by the U.S. government and conducted by an independent research institute here, found that most Dominicans feel left out of the political process.
Two years after Dominican voters narrowly elected one of their youngest and most progressive presidents, 44-year-old Leonel Fernandez, more than 80% of those surveyed said a good president should be "like a father." Two-thirds said they favored more law and order; a similar number said the nation's problems will be solved only if God intervenes. And nearly half said one's life will remain the same regardless of how much one wants to change it.
Another poll published in the staid national daily Listin Diario last week was headlined, "Fernandez good; the government bad." That study, conducted by the Spanish firm Sigma Dos, showed most respondents feeling that they have little real choice in who is elected to serve them.
Against that backdrop of fatalism, cynicism and a century that has seen a handful of autocrats rule this small republic, some here see this year's advent of superstar politics as little more than a stage show--albeit a fun one.
For educated, middle-class voters such as Ramon Calcano Abud, president of a national real estate company, the trend is neither healthy nor confined to the Dominican Republic.
"This is a phenomenon throughout Latin America," he said. "Just look at Venezuela. You've got a former military dictator running against a beauty queen for president."
The cast of the most powerful characters in the upcoming vote to elect more than 90 mayors, 30 senators and 121 national assembly deputies reflects the country's autocratic past, precarious present and uncertain future.
Authoritarian former President Joaquin Balaguer heads one opposition party. Another is led by longtime social democrat Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, a Santo Domingo mayoral candidate so weakened by cancer that many analysts say he chose merengue star Ventura as his running mate to neutralize voters' concerns about his health.
Most agree the election outcome is important to the political future of a nation with only three decades' experience in multi-party democracy.
Fernandez, who defeated Pena Gomez by 2 percentage points in a 1996 runoff election, is seeking a legislative majority for the first time; analysts fear that could be a rubber stamp for the powerful Dominican presidency.
"But for me, it's important just that elections are taking place," real estate manager Calcano said. "Each time we do it, it moves us closer to real democracy."