IN the wake of presidential elections Dec. 17, the mood here more resembles mourning for a beloved leader than it does the celebration of a democratic transition.
While official results won't be known until Dec. 27, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is likely to transfer power to the expected winner, Rene Preval, on Feb. 7.
Weak voter participation cast a slight shadow on an otherwise unprecedented victory: For the first time in Haiti's 200-year history, a democratically elected president voted for his successor. This is a chance for democracy to take root in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
But the problems facing the new president are so enormous that Haitians say they aren't optimistic.
"In 1990, I had a lot of hope that things would change," said Belizaire Jean Lionel, a poll worker who took to the streets with hundreds of thousands of others to celebrate President Aristide's victory in 1990. Today, I don't know. Things haven't gotten better in the last five years, they've just gotten worse."
Mr. Preval will inherit a host of unresolved problems that observers say led to the 25 percent voter turnout, including rising prices and 80 percent unemployment. What he will not inherit, however, is the overwhelming popularity Aristide has.
"A low turnout leaves Preval more exposed to criticism," says Canadian ambassador Francis Filleul. "His well-established opposition inside and out of Haiti, which has been against democracy in general, will say these elections are worthless."
Despite poor poll numbers, voting was orderly, calm, and without incident, in contrast to previous elections soiled by fraud and violence. But they indicate Preval lacks Aristide's charismatic draw.
Diplomats and Aristide supporters say, however, that not having a leader idolized by the population could work to the advantage of a country struggling to plant democratic roots. "It may be better for the Haitian people that Preval is not as popular [as Aristide]," says a close friend of Preval, who preferred to remain anonymous. "This will force him to work in cooperation with his prime minister and members of his Cabinet."
Others, however, worry that Preval is not equipped for the job.
"He showed limitations when he was prime minister," says Lawrence Pezzullo, the Clinton administration's former special envoy to Haiti. Preval was the 1991 prime minister and defense minister for Aristide before the September 1991 military coup.
"He's never shown anything since then that leads you to feel he could really take command," Mr. Pezzullo adds. "He's pretty limited politically and from a capabilities point of view."
Preval's priority: security
Preval, however, is expected to bring a hard-line approach to his new government. At a press conference he gave following the Dec. 17 vote, he outlined his priorities.
"First, security," he said. "Then development. Then justice."
Preval so far has sidestepped two controversial issues he'll inherit from Aristide. On privatizing state-run businesses, which Haitians are leery of for fear of losing jobs, Preval said only that he would prefer to call it "modernization." On foreign troops, he has not said whether he will ask the United Nations Mission in Haiti to extend its mandate, scheduled to end Feb. 29.
"The Haitian leadership has to want the international community to remain here," says Gen. John Sheehan, commander in chief of the US Atlantic Command, who observed the elections here along with more than 500 international independent observers. "One of the greatest lessons we learned is you can come to a country and insist [on change] up to a point. But after a period of time, you outstay your welcome."
Preval will likely consult closely with Aristide on major policy issues after he takes office, but he may be too strong-willed to be anyone's puppet.
The international community and Aristide opponents seem less concerned about the direction of the new administration than what political role Aristide will play. In the past, critics of the president have accused him of using his influence to incite violence.
Aristide is eligible to run again for president in 2000, but says publicly that he has other plans after he leaves office.
"I hope I will be in my residence, reading and writing, following the political reality," he told foreign journalists last week. "I will be the voice of the silent people." And as to whether or not he will run in 2000? "I think," he said smiling, "we have time to think about it."