Maverick Candidate Gains Ground


HAITI'S election campaign has been transformed by the late entry into the presidential race of the charismatic Roman Catholic priest Jean Bertrand Aristide. A sometimes soft-spoken, but frequently firebrand leader, Mr. Aristide's broadening support appears to have swamped competitors. Haitians are now expected to flock to the polls on Sunday, when they will vote for a president, senators, deputies, magistrates, and local leaders.

``People are voting with their hearts,'' says Gary Victor, a political analyst.

Candidates' posters are plastered across crumbling city walls. Campaign commercials here seem to get as much air time as news. Nearly a half dozen new television shows have been added just to discuss electoral topics.

Aristide's popularity derives largely from his outspoken criticism of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier's government. The priest was expelled from his religious order for mixing politics with religion. His hard-line position has earned him popularity among the poor and those seeking to change the political and economic status quo.

It has also made him a focal point for antidemocratic forces. On Dec. 5, only 11 days before the election, a grenade exploded after one of Aristide's political rallies. Seven people died and more than 54 were wounded. Aristide escaped unharmed.

But at this stage of the campaign, all eyes are on the Army. Its action, or lack of action, (as when soldiers stood by while 37 voters were murdered during 1987's election) could determine the election outcome.

``The Army is the sole body capable of ensuring that the elections do not meet the same bloody fate as three years ago,'' says a spokesman for the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, a New York-based human rights organization visiting Haiti with a 10-member observation team.

Some 700 election observers are expected to watch the election. Along with private groups, a 64-member United Nations team is working daily with the Haitian military to ensure election security. The military has repeatedly pledged support for elections.

``The one thing security forces can't avoid is terrorists acts like Dec. 5,'' says Col. Denis Vaultier, chief security adviser for the UN group. ``Until now, the electoral campaign has been in excellent condition.''

Aristide has accused Roger Lafontant, the widely acknowledged ringleader of Mr. Duvalier's paramilitary gang of thugs, the Tontons Macoutes, of masterminding the attack. The Army has not enforced a July 10 warrant for Mr. Lafontant's arrest.

``In the Army, there are two kinds of people,'' says Irene Ridore, former mayor of Port-au-Prince. ``There are the Macoutes, and there are those who want change. One improvement ... is that the Macoutes have less force, and those wanting change have more.''

Paul Dejean, who has worked with Haitian refugees for 30 years, says, ``the only change any government has made during this time is to formally switch the color of the flag from black and red to its original blue and red. Haitians are ready for something more substantial.''

Many analysts predict Aristide will win more than 50 percent of the vote, ruling out a Jan. 13 runoff. But there is concern that his party, the National Front for Democratic Convergence, lacks political experience.

Most of Aristide's support comes from a group of 200 advisors. Their diverse backgrounds, ranging from Marxist-Leninist orientation to Haiti's elite, has been a target for his opponents. ``I think the press has given [Aristide] more attention than [he] deserves,'' says Serge Gilles, general coordinator of PANPRA, a social democratic party in the National Alliance for Democracy and Progress (ANDP) coalition.

``One political party by itself is not sufficient to put the country on the road to democracy and development,'' he says. ``An alliance is a strategic instrument.''

If ANDP wins in the legislature and Marc Bazin, its presidential candidate, loses, he or Mr. Gilles might be chosen prime minister.

Mr. Bazin, a former World Bank economist, is often referred to as the favorite of the United States. He is backed by middle-class Haitians who fear Aristide's militant ideology. Bazin, however, is seen by many Haitians as aloof and lacking charisma.

In a country whose populace is 80 percent illiterate, setting up electoral procedures has been tough. Generally the process has been smooth. Unlike 1987, most electoral material is already in the 14,000 polling places.

``We have come too far to turn back,'' says Lionel, an artist. ``We lost in 1987, and we won't lose again.''

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