Haiti gives Aristide ally a second chance

Nearly a week after elections in Haiti, with the final votes still being counted, René Préval, a mild-mannered former president, was leading 33 candidates with 48.7 percent of the votes - a clear victory, but not the 50 percent needed to avoid a March 19 runoff.

As news of the outcome spread, thousands of Préval supporters took to the streets in the capital pounding drums, erecting roadblocks, and calling for a recount. They claim tens of thousands of Préval ballots had been invalidated so as to deny the candidate an outright win. "The electoral council is trying to do what it can to diminish the percentage of Préval so it goes to a second round," Jean-Henoc Faroul, president of one electoral district told The Associated Press.

But even with the vote almost certainly going to another round, Préval seems most likely to become Haiti's next leader. With 90 percent of the votes counted at press time, Leslie Manigat was coming in a distant second with only 11.8 percent. Haitians now are looking ahead to how Préval will try to bridge an entrenched rich-poor gap and bring security to this troubled nation.

Born 63 years ago in Port-au-Prince into a relatively well-to-do family, Préval's father was a minister of agriculture - until the family was forced to flee the dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in the early 1960s. Préval studied agronomy in Belgium, before returning to Haiti in 1975.

Préval and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a liberation theologist hugely popular among the poor, became friends when they joined forces in "Lavalas," a movement formed to protest the dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. And, when Mr. Aristide later won the country's first democratic election in 1990, Préval was named prime minister - until a military coup pushed them both into exile less than a year later.

When the US restored Aristide to power three years later, Préval was appointed Haiti's director of the Economic and Social Assistance Fund, a USAID/World Bank-funded effort to promote small development projects. And in 1995 Préval entered the presidential campaign and won.

Préval's presidency is distinctive because he remains the only president in Haiti's 202-year history to win a democratic election, serve a full term, and peacefully hand power to a successor. But while his years in office, from 1996 to 2001, were calm and lacking in any major corruption scandals, many dismissed him as nothing more than a puppet of his mentor Aristide who returned to power after the 2000 elections.

Now, as Préval enters a second round to become the leader of this beleaguered country that has been led by an interim government since Aristide was ousted in 2004, he will no doubt be pressed to answer a question he has dodged for months: will he bring Aristide - who remains in exile in South Africa - back to power?

Préval did not run under Aristide's Lavalas party banner but rather with his own party - Lespwa, which means "hope" in Haitian Creole. Nonetheless, he was adopted by many of Aristide's former supporters as their candidate, and his rallies echoed with chants of "Bring Aristide home." Likewise, those who had campaigned to get Aristide out of office have expressed deep concern about Préval because of his association with the former leader.

"It's incumbent that he ... be his own man," stressed Dumarsais Simeus, the popular Haitian-American business tycoon who was blocked from running for constitutional reasons. "He seems serious about doing something to be a bridge between the poor and rich in this country - not to bring back the days of Aristide," says Mr. Simeus, who adds that he would be keen to work with a Préval government.

Charles Henri Baker, who came in third in tally to date, expresses a view typical of the business elite when he complains that Préval, "didn't do anything in office, except give us the chimères in Cité Soleil." Mr. Baker is referring to the slum gangs that Aristide allegedly armed - and which have since set off a devastating wave of kidnapping and bloodshed. "We are in bad shape if he becomes president," says Baker.

Préval has not responded to these charges, but has repeatedly said the solution to the violence in Cité Soleil cannot be a military one, and should involve social, economic, and political investment.

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

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