A ravaged island's prospects for democracy

Within minutes, four electoral workers are able to transform an empty, open-sided thatched hut into a "Bureau Inscription," one of Haiti's recently established 3,500 registration booths.

These temporary government employees find a large piece of plywood and set it atop bricks to form a desk. They hang a blue and white "BI" (bureau inscription) sign on a makeshift pole, then carefully check off the contents of two large bins containing the designated registration material: registration cards, camera and film, plastic pockets, scissors, glue, pencils.

They are ready for elections, but the government is not. Haiti has twice postponed them, including the most recently proposed date of April 9. Logistical pitfalls and widespread theft at polling places are some of the reasons cited. But voters are frustrated by the delays. Many have taken to the streets in protest.

In the last two weeks, angry Haitians have stormed an election-commission office in Port-au-Prince, setting fire to voting materials and demanding the regional director step down. At least six people died in election-related violence. Last week's assassination of well-known radio commentator Jean Leopold Dominique further incited public rage. Following his funeral on Saturday, some 100 protesters set fire to an opposition party's headquarters - more proof of the country's lack of law and order.

"This isn't good," says one US official in Port-au-Prince, speaking anonymously. "And things are only going to get worse."

Voters are waiting to cast their ballots for 1,496 parliamentary and local seats, including spots for 19 senators, 83 deputies, and 133 mayoral candidates. Presidential elections are scheduled for the end of the year.

And therein lies the problem, many observers say. Opposition leaders claim that President Ren Prval is stalling on the elections. They say he does not want to share power with a parliament that may favor an opposition majority.

Mr. Prval dissolved the Haitian parliament in January 1999 on an interpretation of the electoral law ending the parliamentarians' term.

That left only nine elected officers in place: Prval and eight senators. The Constitution calls for the next parliament session to begin June 12. If the 47th legislature doesn't take office by then, only the president (whose term ends in February) can introduce legislation in parliament.

"Prval is quite comfortable not being tied to the institution," says Jocelyn McCalla, director of the US-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights. "He's not really ready and willing to make a whole lot of compromises."

Critics say another reason Prval is stalling elections is so these local and regional votes will be incorporated into the coming presidential elections.

Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ally and mentor to Prval, has already announced his intention to run for president under the banner of the party he heads, Family Lavalas. Mr. Aristide was Haiti's first democratically elected president, and wildly popular with the populace. He was responsible for disbanding the now-defunct system of local section chiefs that terrorized peasants in the countryside, and eliminated the infamous Haitian military and paramilitary.

But recent electoral violence was perpetrated by people claiming Family Lavalas membership.

There is a fear that the powers to be don't want elections to happen now," says a senior US official, requesting anonymity. "Haiti does not have a tradition of civil society, or mass mobilization ... to demand things from the government. If they merge elections, there's the presumption that Family Lavalas will be able to dominate parliament on the shirttails of Aristide."

Opposition groups fear that if Aristide wins along with a Family Lavalas majority in parliament, there will be no room for an opposition voice. Lavalas spokesman Yvon Neptune, unavailable for comment, issued a statement denouncing any use of violence.

"Our objective since Dec. 16, 1990, has been total and complete change," says Lavalas party member Annette Augustin, referring to the presidential election that brought victory to then-Reverend Aristide. "Change in the country's insecurity, schools, health, a real democracy ... will get us out of our misery and hunger."

The international community strongly supports elections as part of Haiti's democracy-building. "Failure to constitute a legitimate parliament risks isolating Haiti from the community of democracies," says Arturo Valenzuela, special assistant to President Clinton.

The US, the United Nations, the European Community, and the Organization of American States admit they have less leverage over Haiti, which has already forsaken tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid because of its extraconstitutional government. No one wants to impose an embargo yet, since that would ultimately hurt the Haitian people.

"It's shocking how the international community is forcing us to go to elections" before Haiti's ready, says a civil servant. Thousands of voters have been unable to register due to miscalculations in materials, incompetence, and a a shortage of registration booths.

Joseph Pierre, a guardian at a deserted southern beach house already has his voter registration card. Mr. Pierre has never voted - doesn't even know his age, only that he is a grandfather. But his card recognizes him as a Haitian citizen for the first time, and he intends to take advantage of that.

"I don't know whom I'll vote for, but if they hold elections," he states proudly. "Then I will vote."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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