Millions of Haitians Raise Their Voice for Election In Crucial Test for US Role

DEFYING a troubled past and abject poverty, a small hope has taken root in Haiti. It is expressed simply and eloquently by Luni Joseph.

The young computer student is one of several dozen Haitians queued up near a crowded market place in the Haitian capital, the last of over 3 million to register to vote in parliamentary and local elections scheduled for June 25. Though guarded about the future, she thinks her country is on the cusp of change.

"Elections in this country have never been interesting before, but it looks like there's a state of law now," she says. "We're at a turning point, because after this election, nothing will be the same. It's the beginning of democracy in Haiti."

Ms. Joseph's cautious hopes are widely shared as Haiti gears up for its first elections since a military junta was forced out and the country's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was restored to power by United States-led forces nine months ago. Combined with US-backed efforts to reform the country's judicial systems, the elections hold promise of putting the nation on a new course.

"If you have a legitimate parliament and local government and if the justice system is seen by average people to protect them, then you have the basis for a democratic future," says one US official closely following preparations for Haiti's elections.

Voters will elect 101 parliamentarians and over 2,000 local officials in this month's vote and in a run-off election due in July. The mere holding of this vote may be as important as the outcome. It will test Mr. Aristide's commitment to free elections and set the stage for crucial presidential elections scheduled for November.

Successful elections are also crucial to President Clinton, whose decision last fall to dispatch 25,000 troops to restore order and democracy in Haiti was met with profound skepticism in Congress.

So far, neither corruption nor widespread violence have marred the run-up to the voting, as many observers had feared. Nor has voter apathy. A surprising 90 percent of eligible voters have registered, and outside election experts predict that the election turnout could top 80 percent.

But the preparations for the balloting have been bedeviled by administrative snafus. The nonpartisan Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) has had to postpone the election date twice because of delays in finalizing candidate lists and registering voters. Some opposition groups, meanwhile, have questioned the impartiality of the CEP, which is dominated by members of Aristide's Lavalas party.

The legitimacy of the election has also been threatened by recent disclosures that up to 1 million registration forms have been lost, potentially opening the door to widespread fraud.

But pressured by the US, the CEP has redoubled its efforts to reassure the parties of its commitment to fair elections. Over the weekend, it signed a protocol allowing party representatives to join independent international observers in overseeing the voting, which will take place at 4,000 polling stations around the country. The CEP also signed a code of conduct for the campaign with the major parties.

Assuaged for now, opposition leaders say they will remain engaged in the process, despite reservations.

"We can still repair the mistakes," says Victor Benoit, leader of the socialist CONACOM party, who says his party still plans to participate in the elections even though three of its 12 parliamentary candidates were disqualified by the CEP.

In the run-up to the election, there are reasons to be hopeful, despite sporadic violence and entrenched pockets of resistance to democracy and reform in Haiti, Haitian and US observers say.

For one thing, the country is less polarized than it was in 1990, when free parliamentary elections were last held. Three years of repression and international isolation under military rule have made many Haitians more determined to make the democratic process work.

The last vestiges of a repressive era are being uprooted as Aristide dismantles the Army - a feared symbol of repression - both financially and constitutionally.

The main reason for confidence in the election process is the improved security that has come with the presence of 6,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops, who will remain until Aristide's successor takes office next February. Another factor is a new but guarded confidence, expressed by many Haitians like Joseph, that this time the process will work.

"The people we're going to vote for this time will have a different vision of the country than before," he says. "They will respect the Constitution."

Among Haiti-watchers, short-term hopes are tempered by long-term concern about what will happen after the UN forces depart. "Being optimistic about Haiti is like being optimistic about the Boston Red Sox," says a third US official, referring to one of the perennial losers in US baseball. "People are optimistic, but something can always come along that can derail things."

"This is a country that is getting a second chance, thanks to the international community," notes J. Brian Atwood, administrator of the Agency for International Development, who last week led a US delegation to Haiti to oversee election plans.

"If it succeeds, it will prove that when the international community, led by the US, considers something to be very important, it can get the job done. If it works, the potential for the multilateral system is infinite," he says.

"The odds are excellent that [Haiti] will make it," he adds.

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