DEMOCRACY is alive and well when even impoverished and inexperienced developing countries can hold free and fair elections. That is the upbeat conclusion after Haiti's amazingly successful poll in December. For 186 years, since the end of its first slave revolution, Haitians have endured despotic indigenous rule. After the end of the US occupation, from 1915 to 1932, there were controlled elections. Finally, in 1957, a limited but reasonably honest election brought Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier to power.
That was the end of even incipient governmental tolerance and economic growth in Haiti. Under Papa Doc and, after 1971, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, Haitians experienced outright terror.
Protesting mobs forced Baby Doc into exile in early 1986 and, until earlier this year, Haiti endured rule by a succession of corrupt military juntas and a president installed by the army after a limited poll. There was a critical aborted election in 1987, too.
Few Haitians and fewer outsiders expected anything better this year. But the great mass of Haitians, more than 3 million registered voters out of a population roughly estimated at 7 million, were determined both to cast ballots and to anoint a visionary president.
Overwhelmingly, from the slums of Port-au-Prince, the capital, to the salubrious middle-class enclave of Kenscoff, and from Jacmel in the south to Cap Haitian in the north, Haitians firmly put an X underneath the photograph of the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Charismatic and boldly anti-Duvalierist, he represented a clear break with the oppressive past.
With equal and compelling clarity, Haitians who were supposed to be mired in past misery, displayed an extraordinary determination to conduct an election which would be viewed both inside and outside the country as fully legitimate.
When the polls opened at 6 a.m. on Dec. 16 in Cap Haitian, for example, a majority of the several hundred polling places in the center of the country's second city lacked ballots, ballot boxes, ink (into which voters dipped a thumb, to prevent fraud), tally sheets, and, sometimes, even tables and chairs. But local, only recently trained officials improvised while long and patient lines formed outside.
By mid-morning most of the polling booths were functioning. Registration cards were laboriously checked against computerized and handwritten lists. Poll workers handed out four lengthy paper ballots and ushered mostly illiterate voters behind improvised cardboard screens.
The sanctity and secrecy of the vote was scrupulously observed. With patience, those who had marked their ballots (taking about three minutes each) were shown how to fold them to fit into the color-coded boxes.
By late-afternoon, the lines had largely diminished, and it had become clear to foreign observers that city-dwellers as well as rural Haitians were expressing their preferences without hindrance from the army, and without any pressure from the 11 contesting political parties. No goons had intimidated anyone, and no poll-worker had influenced voters.
As darkness covered the country, many polls stayed open by flashlight until about 8 p.m. to permit the very last stragglers to take part.
But there was still an opportunity to steal the election. In other nations, or in Haiti at other times, the army or paramilitary thugs like the Duvalierist Tonton Macoutes might have been expected to interfere with the counting or spirit away the ballot boxes.
In fact, in polling station after polling station in Cap Haitian (and throughout the country), ballot boxes were emptied in full view of international and local observers (including the press), and tallied meticulously by hand.
Many Cap Haitian officials refused to begin their counts until international observers, whom they had come to know during the day, were present to watch the process.
Father Aristide's massive appeal was quickly apparent. Nevertheless, as each paper ballot was retrieved from the box it was read, held up to be verified by the local and foreign observers, and then registered. No vote, anywhere, could have been more thorough.
The complete tallies at the local level could have been denied or distorted at the regional or national level, but even if the army or the ex-Duvalierists were tempted, too many people were watching, and too many Haitians - from individual voters on up - had put themselves squarely on the line.
If Haiti, the least favored nation of the Western Hemisphere, is any indication, democracy's heartbeat is strong even where it has long been dormant or denied.