PETITE REVIERE DE L'ARTIBONITE, HAITI — TRUDGING along the pot-holed roads of the Artibonite Valley, supporters of Rene Garcia Preval cheer him through a wall of dust kicked up by a caravan of four-wheel-drive vehicles, shouting, ''President Preval, we love you.''
The longtime political activist, widely expected to win Haiti's presidential elections Sunday, frequently jumps into the crowd to shake hands or give hugs.
''Work with the local government representatives, tell them what your problems are: health, water, jobs,'' he shouts from the top of a car.
''We have to decide together how to solve the problems. We have to organize.''
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, barred from running again, has endorsed Mr. Preval, whom he calls his ''twin.''
When President Aristide was returned to office in 1994 with American help, he said casting the ballot for his successor would even more important for the future of democracy than his own 1991 election, which was aborted by a military coup.
This Sunday, Haiti's 3 million registered voters will have a chance to prove him right by choosing among 14 candidates. The new president will serve a five-year term beginning Feb. 7.
For this small Caribbean nation - the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and battered by waves of military and elitist rule - the elections will give a wobbly democracy a chance to strengthen its legs.
For the international community, especially President Clinton, the election is the culmination of a $3 billion investment by the United States and a three-year effort to restore democracy.
The United Nations Mission in Haiti, which took over stabilizing Haiti after the invasion, is pulling out by Feb. 29, unless the new government requests that they stay on. Members of UNMIH will assist the Haitian police in providing security for the 10,228 polling places. Nearly 500 international observers, including members of the US Congress, are expected.
Among Aristide's legacies is the dismantling of the brutal Haitian military and the formation of a national police force. But security is still a concern for many here, and the new president will have to decide if some sort of international presence is necessary.
''We are trying to help [the Haitians] be aware of the responsibility they will inherit from us - if they can do the job themselves, that's the best,'' says UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Before Preval's arrival in the coastal town of St. Marc, a group of men sat in the town square discussing elections. Many voted in 1990 but will not vote Sunday.
''Sugar was 10 cents a cup in 1990,'' says Jacques Gabriel, a father of six. ''Today, it's tripled. Why bother voting if there's not going to be any improvement?''
Luxe Paul is more enthusiastic. ''I'll be at the polls at 6 a.m. Sunday to cast my vote for democracy, employment, and justice. I've been sleeping in peace since President Aristide returned. I want that to continue,'' he says.
Preval's close ties to Aristide
Preval was Aristide's prime minister and minister of interior and national defense until the September 1991 coup.
He then went into exile. Some say Preval began campaigning Oct. 15, 1994, the day he returned to Haiti as part of the presidential entourage. Aristide soon appointed him president of the Economic and Social Assistance Fund (FAES), a state agency that finances development projects for state and non-governmental organizations.
''Preval started his electoral campaign by building on his relationship with grass-roots leaders and expanded it with contacts made by those who received FAES money,'' confides a close friend.
''He had the power structure in his hand to help people find jobs,'' says former Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul, who lost his place in the legislative elections last June. ''He used that to boost his popularity.''
A shake-up of a party
Ironically, Mr. Paul's party, the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD), created in 1990 to support the candidacy of Aristide, is today boycotting these elections. FNCD split apart after Aristide took office, with the majority aligning themselves with the new party, Lavalas.
''The Electoral Council gave us five weeks for the entire process - for everything from registering to campaigning,'' complained Paul. ''What kind of respect does that show for the people? These elections won't lead us to democracy, just like the June legislative elections were fraudulent.''
While Preval's campaign trail has some of the color and excitement of the 1990 campaign, it is the only one that does. Much of this year's campaign consists of little more than banners, posters, and radio spots.
Some candidates say it's for financial reasons, some blame it on security. But outside of a few incidents - the home of one of the few viable opponents to Preval, Leon Jeune, was fired upon - the violence that historically goes hand-in-hand with Haitian elections is absent.
''There's less political pressure on me,'' says Pierre Karn Moreau who has overseen polling stations in past elections, including the 1987 one cancelled because of violence. ''But there's less interest this time, too. It's probably because misery and hunger continues.''
''Elections are the best chance to establish security, become a democratic country, attract investors, and reform the economy. They had or have all these chances,'' says US Embassy spokesman Stan Schrager. ''But there's not much time left to consolidate these issues.''