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#3731: Fate of nation rides on Haiti general election (fwd)


Published Saturday, May 20, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Fate of nation rides on Haiti general election BY DON BOHNING 

 PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Haitians vote on their future Sunday in a high-stakes
general election that might be the country's most crucial since the end
of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986. The outcome will be
the first step in restoring a fully functioning government for
 the first time in three years and a parliament and local assemblies
shut down by President Rene Preval since January 1999. Since then, Haiti
-- a country of eight million people -- has had only nine elected
 officials holding office at any level: Preval and eight of 27 senators.
 The three years of political bickering and lack of a parliament have
cost the hemisphere's poorest country -- annual per capita income is
estimated at less than $300 -- between $500 million and $800 million in
foreign assistance. The vote comes against the backdrop of rising
insecurity generated by high levels of politically related violence in
recent weeks, including about 15 murders. As late as Friday, some
observers were not discounting the possibility of Election
 Day violence that could disrupt the voting. This weekend's election is
being closely watched by the large Haitian community in South Florida,
most of whom maintain close ties to the island. Although
 Haitians living outside the country are not eligible to cast ballots,
the election offers hope for an end to the violence that has gripped the
country in recent months. With stability, Haitians in the United States
hope for an improvement in the economy that will generate jobs and allow
their relatives to forego the risk of perilous boat journeys across the
Florida Straits. The enormity of the elections is reflected in the
numbers: 29,500 candidates for 7,500 local and national posts, including
all 83 members of the lower chamber of parliament and 19 of the 27
senators. The voting will set the stage for presidential elections later
in the year.


 Local positions will be decided Sunday. A parliamentary runoff vote is
scheduled for June 25. Although some flaws in Sunday's vote process is
expected, it will be the degree of obvious flaws and irregularities,
along with voter turnout, that determine the legitimacy of the outcome.
 For the Clinton administration, the vote will be another important
measure of whether Haiti still can be considered a ``success story''
more than five years after 20,000 U.S. troops were dispatched to oust a
brutal military regime and restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to
power. The vote also is the beginning of a showdown between Aristide's
Lavalas Family party and a disparate opposition, which includes large
numbers of disillusioned former Aristide allies. ``We don't have any
leading opponents,'' Lavalas Family spokesman and Senate
 candidate Yvon Neptune said in an interview Friday. ``It's Lavalas
Family and the others.'' It is a view shared by opposition candidate
Mirlande Manigat, wife of former President Leslie Manigat and, along
with Neptune, one of 24 people running for two Senate seats from the
Department of the West. It includes Port-au-Prince and is home to more
than a third of the country's four million registered voters. Although
there is no broad formal opposition coalition, says Manigat, a political
 scientist by profession and considered one of the stronger Senate
candidates, the contesting parties generally are opposed to the Lavalas
government (Aristide and now Preval) ``because it has not been
successful after 10 years in power. A lot of people who had worked for
him [Aristide] have left him.''


 That sentiment was reflected by Virgil Mathurin, 40, a waiter who lives
in a congested lower-class neighborhood of suburban Petionville, who
said he and many of his friends ``were worried about going out [to vote
Sunday] but if we can we will go out to place another bet. We have been
waiting 10 years and are tired.Nothing has happened. We are looking for
change.'' Still, it generally is agreed that Aristide remains the most
popular and asute politician in Haiti. Both the opposition and
international institutions have suggested that Preval and
 the Lavalas Family have maneuvered to delay the elections as long as
possible, preferring to combine them with the presidential vote later in
the year. Then Aristide, a virtually certain candidate for the
presidency, would benefit from the so-called ``coattail affect'' and
have a better chance of winning an absolute majority in parliament.
 ``. . . The government's role in these delays has led some to question
its commitment to the timely and transparent conduct of these
elections,'' an Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of
American States, noted in an interim report issued Thursday.