The vote in Haiti - a new hope

US officials may be little a happier with the results of the presidential election in Haiti than they were when Palestinians voted the militant Hamas movement into power last month. But in both cases, the people of a nascent democracy have spoken.

After peaceful balloting on Feb. 7 that included a large turnout, violence and street protests have sprung up expressing frustration at the slow vote count. As of this writing, candidate René Préval, with a huge lead, remains just short of outright victory.

If Mr. Préval's vote count remains less than 50 percent, a runoff election will be held next month. But even then, he appears certain to be the next president.

Préval has been called the "twin" or protégé of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted from power in 2004 and is now in exile in South Africa. Many in Haiti and across the Caribbean believe the US had sought to remove Mr. Aristide, who was democratically elected.

Some worry Mr. Préval will invite Aristide to return, further destabilizing the fragile politics of the most impoverished country in the Americas. Préval has been noncommittal, perhaps out of political necessity: Aristide's supporters in the urban slums form Préval's political base as well.

But the quiet-spoken Préval, who earlier served a term as president from 1996 to 2001, has also charted an independent course. He ran not as a candidate of Aristide's Lavalas Party, but as the leader of his own new party, called Lespwa - Creole for "hope." In his previous term as president, he earned a reputation as that rare Haitian politician who actually improved the lives of the people through road- and school-building projects, land reform, and by keeping down the price of fertilizer - a vital commodity to peasant farmers.

For a nation beset by kidnappings, murders, and other violence, reports that slum gangs have said they would lay down their weapons once Préval took office is another hopeful sign.

Préval is also depicted as a man who speaks little but listens a lot - surely a plus in a nation that has more problems than answers. Haiti's proud past, winning independence from France in 1804, has since been marred by a series of coups and corrupt military dictatorships, culminating in the reign of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, whom Préval helped oust in 1986.

The US has long been involved in Haiti, including an occupation by US Marines from 1915 to 1934. Any further slip toward anarchy, and Americans could view a new humanitarian disaster unfolding on their TVs. That in turn could send thousands of desperate Haitians fleeing in boats toward a hope of haven in Florida.

Haiti urgently needs stability, and a period of reconciliation and dialogue between its political factions. Perhaps the first sign of hope was last week's election itself. For a country with little history of successful democracy, it was a hopeful sign.

Préval has indicated he will call on successful Haitians abroad for help.

Now the US and the United Nations, with 9,000 peacekeepers on the ground, must do their part. Haiti's problems won't be solved quickly. That's why the world and the US must commit to aid over the long haul - over many years, not months.

For the US, that's simply a matter of enlightened self-interest.

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