Haitians look forward to long-awaited election despite violence. Backlash against `Duvalierist' thugs indicates that public supports elections

In the face of escalating violence, Haitians are displaying a near-heroic determination to go through with their country's first election in 30 years. ``Violence is nothing new for us,'' says Pierre Labissiere, vice-president of the Provisional Election Council, which is responsible for overseeing the running of Sunday's election. ``It will take more than this week's arsons and murders to postpone the elections.''

Thugs believed allied with disqualified ``Duvalierist'' presidential candidates - those associated with ousted dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier - added daytime shootings to their violent repertoire this week. It is unclear how the fear generated by that development would effect voter turnout on Sunday.

Anti-election violence has intensified since early November. And, by press time Wednesday, it appeared that time was running precariously short for the ill-equipped council, the CEP, to make preparations to ensure free and fair elections. But the council was holding firm to the original Sunday date.

A growing public backlash to the violence - night-time watch brigades that even degenerated at times into vigilante violence against believed Duvalierist thugs - was a surprisingly bold response. Despite its violent overtones, the backlash conveyed reassurance that the public supports elections.

According to Victor Benoit, a leader of the Group of 57 (a center-left coalition of civic groups), the people are not demonstrating, they're staying awake late at night to defend themselves because the government won't.

``I am emphasizing, people are not committing any violent acts,'' Mr. Benoit says. ``It is self-defense.'' He noted that before the people started taking to the streets at night, there was no Army presence. Now there is a visible Army presence.

Candidates, election officials, foreign diplomats, and Roman Catholic Church officials, expressed confidence that elections in some form would happen Sunday. The church is asking that all services be concluded by 7 a.m. Sunday in order to allow people to vote.

Observers here say it is not a question of if, but when, Haitian popular will outmuscle the violence of a small minority.

The long-anticipated Presidential elections are a post-Duvalier test of Haitian ``backbone,'' says a Western diplomat.

But the election offers more symbolic value than any immediate change for Haitians, whose entrenched poverty is the worst in the Western hemisphere.

``The election itself won't really make a difference except that people think that it's important,'' says Simon Fass, a University of Minnesota public affairs professor and author of a book on Haiti's political economy.

Any new President would have to work against economic adversity while trying to get along with a hostile military, which was seriously demoralized and divided under the Duvalier regime.

CEP election officials work out of bullet-pocked headquarters, where windows are welded shut this week with steel and entrances sand-bagged for protection. Their first headquarters was destroyed by fire three weeks ago. And only in the past week has the pace of election organization visibly picked up around the new offices.

An influx of foreign election observers and media has buoyed election officials' resolve, said Mr. Labissiere. But more important, is ``the willingness of the people to go through with the elections.''

The CEP reports that an unexpectedly high 70 percent of Haitians - 2.2 million - registered for the election.

The CEP's Mr. Labissiere measured Haitian resolve to go through with elections by the courageous new activities of vigilance groups. Several thousand residents of one neighborhood broke their self-imposed 8:30 curfew and filled the streets one evening this week to prevent now common nightly drive-by shootings.

The frequent violence here is widely believed to be committed with the participation or tacit approval of the ruling interim military government, the National Governing Council (CNG). It is also widely believed that the military wants to maintain its hold on power.

The ruling junta has been silent about the elections, and has offered no support to the CEP.

United States officials have been increasingly critical of the lack of security provided by the National Governing Council during recent weeks. The US has said it would cut off all of its $110 million in foreign aid to Haiti if a civilian government is not installed by the Feb. 7 deadline set by the country's Constitution.

Ever since public unrest sent ``President-for-Life'' Jean-Claude Duvalier into exile in February 1986, the Haitian people have been testing their power. It is their clamor for democratic elections - sometimes by going to the streets - that is credited with forcing the CNG to allow the election council to operate.

``I'm 36 years old, and I never voted in my life, so compared to what we had before, these elections are going to look perfect,'' says Max Chauvet, owner and editor of Le Nouvelliste, Haiti's largest daily newspaper.

``I'm not worried about the elections [being held successfully]. It's after the elections I'm worried about,'' Mr. Chauvet says.

Observers here recite a litany of post-election challenges:

Because there are 23 candidates for President, a run-off between the top two is expected on December 27. This will extend the volatile electoral period and the potential for more violence.

Already there are signs that losing candidates are likely to contest the election results.

Louis Dejoie Jr., a leading candidate, said that if another leading candidate, Marc Bazin, were to win, ``I'd refuse to accept the results because the only way he can win is if there's fraud.''

Acrimony among candidates, say some observers, could weaken the results of the election. No matter who wins, a broad coalition of support will be necessary for any president to operate. Mr. Dejoie, for example, has already tried to organize some of his competitors to form a coalition that would back him if he makes it to the runoff.

Further, says a Western diplomat, ``Come election day, you'll probably see a lot of ad hoc procedures'' because election planning has been so hasty.

And, the diplomat says, the general uncertainty surrounding election procedure - such as how ballots are counted, how illiterates can be helped at the polling booth - fuel questions about election credibility.

Haiti's leading presidential hopefuls

The Haitian presidential field includes 23 candidates - and that's after 12 ``Duvalierist'' candidates were barred from running.

Because 80 percent of Haitians are illiterate, they will votes by selecting a candidate's ballot by his photo, party colors, and emblem.

The campaigning has included little explanation of proposed policy, but all candidates promise more jobs - the major issue in Haiti, where a decent daily wage is about $3.

Political observers here generally agree that the four leading contenders are:

Marc Bazin, the Movement for the Installation of Democracy in Haiti. A conservative French educated economist, lawyer, and former World Bank administrator. A black mark on his record is the short time he served as finance minister under Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Sylvio Claude, the Christian Democratic Party of Haiti. A Protestant minister with a large following among the urban poor, he was jailed and harassed by the Duvalier regime.

Louis Dejoie, Agricultural and Industrial Development Party. An industrialist who spent 28 years in exile, his popularity is fueled by the huge name recognition of his father, who was a presidential candidate in 1957 when Fran,cois Duvalier reputedly stole the election.

Gerard Gourgue, United National Front. A human rights lawyer and schoolmaster, his party is the center-left coalition formerly known as the Group of 57.

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