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#3596: Haiti goes to the polls (fwd)


Haiti goes to the polls  By Peter Greste in Port au Prince 
Tuesday, 9 May, 2000, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK BBC NEWS

 Haitians are preparing to go to the polls on the 21 May, for a
parliamentary election that observers say will be critical to both the
country's future and regional stability. The vote is aimed at ending a
political crisis that has crippled the Haitian parliament for almost a
year and a half. In January last year,President Rene Preval suspended
the entire congress and two thirds of the senate in a dispute with the  
opposition. Since then he has ruled by decree.The election is       
expected to fill all those federal vacancies, as well as almost 7,000
other jobs across the country in five layers of government. 

Atmosphere of terror' 

But there are serious doubts about whether the election will achieve its
aims, or even if it  will take place at all. The Provisional Electoral
Council which is in charge of organising the elections has warned that
if the current level of political violence continues, it  will have to
consider rescheduling the vote for the fourth time. "If in the coming
days popular organisations  continue to promote violence, to destroy the
cars of honest citizens, if fires continue to destroy property ... the
elections, intended to change the economic and social situation of the
nation, will not take place," Leon Manus, president of the Provisional
Electoral Council, told a meeting with political parties.  The
opposition too has warned that it will pull out in the final week unless
attacks on its members stop.  Micha Gaillard, of the five-party
opposition coalition, Espace du Concertation, said street thugs linked
to the ruling Family Lavalas party have been creating an atmosphere of
terror in the lead up to elections, to try to reduce the voter turnout
and make it easier to rig the vote  "We all know who these thugs are,
and their numbers are small," Gaillard said. All the government has to
do is arrest them and bring some order back to the streets, and       
we can continue with a peaceful, democratic election. But we won't take
part in a flawed and violent election," he added. 

Victims of violence

 Throughout April, at least eleven political figures were murdered, ten
of them linked to the opposition. An unidentified group abducted      
another opposition candidate Clody Myrthil, beating him and holding him
captive for two  weeks, before dumping him in a corn field  beside a
hole that he believed would become his grave. And another group of   
attackers claiming to support Family Lavalas torched the headquarters of
the opposition United Democratic Convention  several weeks ago. But    
the government had denied any complicity in the violence. "It's not just
the opposition that's been the target of violence - we've all been
victims," the Prime Minister Jacques Alexis told the BBC. "The
opposition has to realise that its up to all of us to use our influence
in the community to encourage peace and stability. They can't just     
blame the government." Even so, the opposition is convinced it's all  
part of a plan by the president to push the parliamentary election back
to November, to coincide with a presidential election. Either violence
in the lead up to the vote will force its cancellation, or fighting
between the winners and losers of the first round of polling will stop
the second round from ever taking place, they say.  Political analysts
believe that if the parliamentary and presidential elections are       
held together, supporters of the Family Lavalas's presidential candidate
Jean Bertrand Aristide will be able to ride his coat-tails to victory.
He is easily the most popular politician in Haiti, and is expected to
win the presidency easily. Whatever the outcome of the political       
struggle, Haiti needs a resolution fast. The country is already the  
poorest in the western hemisphere, with some 80% of the population     
living on or below the poverty line. 
The lack of a functioning parliament has left the country without any
meaningful services, and the economy is in its deepest recession in a  

Warning of new exodus 

The dismal state of the economy, combined with the political violence
has prompted Director of Haiti's National Migration Office Carol Joseph
to warn of a renewed exodus of boat people trying to reach the Bahamas
and  the United States."First there is drought in the north, second if
elections aren't held as anticipated, international aid will be held up
and the economic situation will worsen,"he said. On the streets of the
capital Port-au-Prince, the mood is depressed. "We thought the
democratic revolution of 1994 [to end the dictatorships] would see our
lives improve," said 30-year-old unemployed mother of two Anite Jean.  
"But what has democracy done for us? Now it seems the days of Papa Doc
(Duvalier) were not so bad after all. If I had the money to pay      
the smugglers, I and my children would be on the first boat out of