WHAT happens after Haiti's presidential election Dec. 17 is less important than the election itself. Can Haiti sustain its new democracy? Can the new president and government fend off coups and a return of military dictatorship?
Despotism has always triumphed in Haiti. It is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the least-favored in the world. Its people are overwhelmingly illiterate and diseased, inadequately served by roads and communications, and have been abused by a commercial elite in cahoots with soldiers.
Democracy is still largely untested in the bitter Haitian crucible. There is no tradition of popular participatory rule, no heritage of the rule of law, and little experience with a market economy. Nothing in Haiti's recent past provides comfort that a corner has been turned.
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, elected overwhelmingly in 1990 in Haiti's first free and full democratic election, was ousted by a military junta in 1991 and restored to power by United States might in 1994. Obeying the Haitian Constitution, he is stepping down on Feb. 7 at the end of his first term.
By relinquishing his office, albeit under pressure from Washington, Aristide's act reinforces the rule of law and helps support the forces of democracy. So will the transfer of power by ballot from Aristide to his successor. Rene Preval, prime minister under Aristide in 1991 and Aristide's hand-picked successor, is almost certain to win. He and Aristide are ''like brothers,'' so continuity of populist approach and policy should be assured. (There are 13 other presidential candidates, only two of whom stand a chance.)
In 1990, populism, led by Aristide and his Lavalas movement, ousted the dark hand of elite control. The business elites had profited from and worked closely with the family dictatorship of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier (1958-86) and the military juntas that followed. In 1991, the elite struck back against Aristide's erratic populism. Preval's election will maintain the ascendancy of popular rule and, if he can remain in office for five years, Aristide can run again in 2000, keeping the tide of populism going until at least 2006.
Arrayed against these worthy populist plans are certain realities. First, Aristide, Preval, and populism owe their security to a 6,000-person UN Multinational Force (including 3,000 Americans), scheduled to leave Haiti by March 1, 1996, three weeks after Preval's presumed accession.
Departure is predicated on the assumption, now known to be false, that a 5,000-man Haitian police force will have been trained sufficiently to maintain order and protect democracy. Unfortunately, the training has been slow. They won't be ready to take over March 1. Haitian democracy's only hope is to persuade President Clinton to leave US troops in place for at least six months after March.
Second, distrusting capitalism, Aristide has been loath to open up the Haitian economy. Privatization of state-controlled enterprises has been slow, job growth almost nonexistent. Nor has the moneyed elite benefited. Aristide's (and Preval's) followers can't consume democracy. Aristide and Preval need to embrace market reforms if democracy is to stand a chance.
Third, to implant democracy into the infertile soil of Haiti, Aristide and Preval need to support the rule of law. They should appoint judges of quality and ensure their independence. They need to pay greater heed to the newly elected legislature.
Fourth, Aristide and Preval must speak more like democrats than like crowd-pleasing autocrats. Both should support what there is of a free press and condemn vendettas against their opponents.