Haiti heads to polls ... at last

The island nation hasn't had an elected president for two years.

It's finally happening.

After being postponed four times, Haiti's first presidential election since its last elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted two years ago is taking place Tuesday.

Some 10,000 UN soldiers and police have been deployed around the country alongside some 5,000 Haitian policemen, and more than 300 international observers have flown in to take part in what many hope could be a successful exercise in democracy that will bring stability and calm to this troubled country of 8.3 million - or at least put it on the right track.

"Elections are clearly not the whole solution. But you can't get a legitimate government that can begin to deal with Haiti's problems and build something out of this failed state without them," says Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization. "Of course we need to think of the day after, and how to ensure the international community stays the course to help build institutions here," he says. "But first we need a government."

"The big problem we have had in the past is that our elections have been totally rigged," adds human rights activist Jean-Claude Bajeux. "This is the first time in history our votes will be exactly counted."

Preparations for these elections by the US-backed interim government of Prime Minister Gérard Latortue and foreign election advisers have faced one obstacle after the next in the past months. But, now, with 3.5 million people registered and holding onto high-tech ID cards, Haitian election officials say fraud will be greatly reduced.

Yet, with close to $75 million spent on these elections, skeptics abound, wondering if pouring money, effort, and expectations into an election day here is the best answer to the country's woes.

Crippled by years of violence, economic stagnation, and lack of leadership, residents of the hemisphere's poorest country head to the polls Tuesday with a sense of possibility - but also a keen knowledge of past failures.

Twenty years ago Tuesday, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was forced into exile, ending his family's 29 years of dictatorship and bringing hope for a fresh, democratic start. But after two decades of ineffectual, and often corrupt leadership, Haiti today is in a very sorry state.

Life expectancy is 52 years, over half the population can't read or write, 4 out of 5 Haitians live on $2 a day, and most big businesses have closed shop and left the country. The national police chief publicly admits about a quarter of his force is involved in kidnappings and corruption. And an unpopular, unelected, caretaker government has been in charge ever since an armed revolt ousted Mr. Aristide.

Thirty-three candidates are running in Tuesday's elections - including two former presidents, two men publicly accused of being drug traffickers, and a former colonel who once attempted a coup.

Leading the pack, according to a Jan. 21 survey conducted by CID-Gallup Latin America polls, is René Garcia Préval, a slim, bearded agronomist and Aristide protégé, who served as prime minister under Aristide, and then as president from 1996-2001. Préval has the dubious distinction of being the only elected Haitian president to serve out a full five-year term and the only not to go into exile since the fall of the Duvalier regime.

Préval entered the race late, and has kept a low profile throughout. He was the only candidate to turn down an invitation to a US-sponsored debate in December and avoids giving details of his platform, preferring, rather, to convey general promises of fighting corruption and bettering education. "My nature is to do things, not talk," he is fond of repeating. Mr. Bajeux, in response, points out that Préval is not known for having done much during his term. "If [Préval] can tell me what he did, I would be very happy," says Bajeux.

While Préval is not running as a member of Aristide's Lavalas Family party, he nonetheless is opposed by the same business elite that pressed for Aristide's ouster and has won support from many Aristide loyalists in Haiti's slums. At a Préval rally here Saturday, Aristide supporters chanted: "Préval, we can't wait any longer, bring back Aristide." The candidate dodges the question of whether he would allow Aristide to return to Haiti, telling Reuters: "The constitution says no Haitian who left Haiti needs a visa to come back."

Préval, according to Gallup, has 37 percent support. Charles Henri Baker, a successful businessman and an active anti-Aristide voice in the past, is a distant second with 10 percent. Leslie François Manigat, an expert in international relations who led Haiti as president for five months in 1988 before being overthrown in a military coup, has 8 percent. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters will face off in a March 19 runoff.

Amid concern that armed groups - connected to political leaders who fear they will lose - will turn violent on election day, schools and public administration buildings have closed for the week. American Airlines, the main international carrier serving Haiti, cancelled all its flights in and out of the country Monday and Tuesday.

UN troops have stepped up patrols, and armored personnel carriers crawl the streets stopping cars to search for weapons. Brazilian Army Lt. Gen. José Elito Carvalho de Siqueira, commander of UN peacekeepers, says a rapid reaction force of soldiers and police will respond to any disturbances.

But still, says Yolette Etienne, an official with the humanitarian agency Oxfam, many people will be too nervous to vote.

In the past two years, hundreds of Haitians have been killed in political and gang violence and nearly 2,000 people have been kidnapped. The UN has lost 13 members to violence and accidents during the deployment and Cité Soleil, a slum in the capital, is a virtual no-go area.

Oxfam said an estimated 210,000 guns now in circulation in Haiti and the long distances many voters will have to travel to the 800 voting centers might discourage people from casting ballots.

Damian Onses-Cardona, spokesman for the UN here, hopes and believes the majority of Haitians will see the opportunity at hand and vote despite misgivings. "Yes, all the problems will still be there the day after the elections, but at least we will have a legitimate government to work with," he says. "There's a sense that this is our last best chance to make Haiti work."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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