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#2507: Just weeks away, Haiti's election cloaked in doubt (fwd)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - Just over three weeks away  from
scheduled legislative and local elections, few in Haiti can  say with
certainty that the long-delayed vote will really take  place.  Haiti's
first nationwide elections in nearly three years are  scheduled for   
March 19 and April 30. Some 29,300 candidates have registered to contend
10,000 available posts.  But a troubled program to register millions of
voters  and  supply them with picture identification cards
has            politicians,  diplomats and voters questioning whether
Haiti's Provisional  Electoral Council (CEP) can stage the elections as
scheduled. "(The CEP) chose March 19 as the date, they must         
respect  it," said Suzy Castor, senate candidate from the opposition 
Organization of People in Struggle (OPL). "A lot of people have  not
been able to register and there is rampant fraud."  The Western
hemisphere's poorest nation, Haiti has struggled  to shake off decades
of dictatorship since 20,000 U.S.-led  troops ousted a military regime
in 1994 and restored  then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, its first
freely elected  president, to power.  When Aristide's term ended in 1996
he handed power to his  protege, President Rene Preval. His term has  
been scarred by a  government crisis since a 1997 legislative election
which was  declared fraudulent by international observers. Preval shut
down parliament 13 months ago and has been  ruling by decree. The
upcoming elections are expected to fill  two-thirds of the Senate and
the entire Chamber of Deputies,  which together make up Haiti's       
parliament.  After postponing the date twice, officials worked in
an      atmosphere of almost daily protests to meet the deadline. 
Protesters are angry about insufficient voter registration  offices and
a lack of cameras and film to make the laminated  picture cards that
Haiti adopted to prevent fraud.  Numerous cases have been reported of
people          registering more  than once or using false birth
certificates to get cards.In the hills of Petionville above the capital,
Viana Calixte, 32, said she registered without going to an office.  I
just gave a friend my picture and they made the card for  me," Calixte
said, explaining that she had been unable to get  away from work to
register.  An estimated 3,500 to 4,000 voter registration offices were 
set up in the nation of 7.5 million people, election officials  said.
Yet many people complain  there is no bureau near them.  A recent report
by the International Foundation for Election  Systems, a
Washington-based advisory group, said shortages were  caused by logistic
mishaps.  IFES distributed 105 tons of election materials but 25 percent
of the film and 10 percent of laminated  materials were  lost, stolen or
ruined, according to        Micheline Begin, IFES'  Haiti project
director.  There is a lot of losses overall, much more than
anticipated," Begin said.  Some experts say officials botched the
registration by underestimating the number of eligible voters and their 
eagerness for the free photo cards, a novelty in Haiti where few  have
legal identification.  Jean-Paul Poirier, a Canadian consultant whose
contract was  not renewed in February by the CEP,said officials used an
old  number when they estimated eligible voters at 4.5 million. "That
figure is from 1987 and should have been
updated to  correspond to Haiti's population growth,"Poirier said on
local  radio stations this week.  A recent poll of 9,000 people by the
think-tank Economic,  Finance, Management Society and financed by the
Haitian Chamber  of Commerce, found 81 percent were likely to vote.    
On Wednesday, the grass-roots St. Jean Bosco organization,  loyal to
Aristide, said elections could not be held March 19  because of the
large number of people unable to register.  Electoral officials say 2.7
million people have registered.  The U.S. embassy refused comment on the
elections.But  Canada's ambassador Gilles Bernier said he was   
optimistic the  vote would occur on schedule despite the problems.    
"It is a Haitian decision, but at this moment I don't believe there will
be a delay," Bernier told Reuters.  In an unscientific poll of 10 people
in Port-au-Prince and  Petionville, only four had voter cards. The
others said  registration offices had shut down or run out of          
film.   "A place was opened for a week or two, the film finished  and
they just shut down," shop owner Matheu Brutus, 38, said.  "When the
19th comes I won't be able to vote.