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#3205: A ravaged island's prospects for democracy (fwd)


A ravaged island's prospects for democracy
By Kathie Klarreich Special to The Christian Science Monitor
April 10 2000
NAN BOUZIN, HAITI  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 materialsand 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 René Préval is stalling on the elections. They say he does not
want to share power with a parliament that may favor an opposition
majority.Mr. Préval 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: Préval 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.
"Préval 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 Préval 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 Préval, 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."