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#3755: An Election Crossroads For Haiti Democracy Riding On Today's Vote (fwd)


An Election Crossroads For Haiti Democracy Riding On Today's Vote

 By Michael Dobbs Washington Post Foreign Service                       
Sunday, May 21, 2000; Page A01 

 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 20—Haiti, the poorest country in the
 Western Hemisphere, goes to the polls Sunday for what many people
 here and abroad regard as potentially the most fateful election since 
the three-decade Duvalier dictatorship collapsed in 1986. A huge amount
is riding on the outcome of the election for a new Haitian parliament
and hundreds of municipal councils: international respectability,
hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign assistance, and whether
democracy can prevail in a country that has known brutal political
repression for most of its 200-year existence. But you would not have
guessed it from the lackluster reception that greeted leaders of the
governing Lavalas party for their final election rally Friday afternoon
in the garbage-filled streets of the Cite Soleil neighborhood, a
traditional party stronghold. Despite good publicity,party supporters
were unable to persuade more than 400 people, out of more than 200,000
slum-dwellers, to attend. The lack of enthusiasm seemed to reflect
widespread disillusionment with politics and politicians and a
preoccupation with everyday survival.Life was better under Jean-Claude"
Duvalier, said Aedele Vilus, 40,who ignored the rally around the corner
from her crumbing concrete  hut. "At least under him, they sprayed the
streets for bugs. Now we are getting killed by mosquitoes, and there is
never enough to eat." The Clinton administration--which sent 20,000
troops to Haiti in 1994 to drive out a military dictatorship, returned
Jean-Bertrand Aristide to  the presidency and invested more than $2
billion in the restoration of Haitian democracy--views the election as a
political and economic  crossroads for the country.The country has been
without a parliament and popularly elected municipal councils for more
than a year because of an impasse between President Rene Preval, a
political ally of Aristide, and opposition parties that used to control
the legislature. Under heavy U.S. pressure, Aristide was forced to give
up office in 1995 because of a constitutional requirement that bars
successive terms, and Preval, his handpicked successor, was elected
president. But by all accounts, Aristide, a radical former Catholic
priest who has exercised a mesmerizing influence over Haitian politics
for the past decade, remains the single most popular politician in the
country, and he is expected to run for president again in November when
Preval's term expires. A victory for Aristide's Lavalas party in
Sunday's legislative and municipal elections would concentrate huge
power in the hands of pro-Aristide forces.The stakes in Sunday's
election, however, go way beyond the question of who will control the
parliament and municipal councils in this Maryland-size country of 8
million. Noting that 14 percent of cocaine entering the United States
now passes through Haiti, up from 10 percent in 1998, some U.S.
officials view the election as a last chance for halting the decline of
the country into a failed drug state and permanent source of instability
700 miles from southern Florida.The elections are taking place against a
background of economic  chaos, escalating political violence and a spate
of assassinations that has claimed the lives of at least 15 people,
mainly opposition activists. Each side has accused the other of
intimidation and vote-rigging. Until very recently, there were
widespread doubts that the election would even be held. "Short of a
miracle, I don't see how we can have credible elections,"opposition
politician Evans Paul said Thursday, after a grenade attack on the
independent electoral commission that injured half a dozen passers-by. 
"If these elections don't work, there's a great possibility of [Haiti]  
moving toward chaos," said Orlando Marville, a Barbados diplomat      
who heads the international electoral observer mission here.In addition
to returning Haiti to constitutional rule, credible elections are needed
to unlock more than $600 million in international loans that have been
frozen because of the lack of a parliament. Haitian economists note that
nearly half the country's budget for development projects comes from the
international community. If the election fails to take place, or is
judged by international observers to be fatally flawed, foreign aid is
likely to dry up almost entirely.The Clinton administration, which
exerted enormous pressure on Preval's government to hold the election,
has drawn up lists of prominent Haitian politicians believed to be
involved in drug-dealing or political murders. The lists include several
people close to Aristide,such as his former security chief, Danny
Toussaint, who is running for the Senate in a district that includes
much of western Haiti, including the capital, Port-au-Prince.While
rumors of politicians being involved in political violence or the     
drug trade are rife, U.S. officials have failed to back up their     
allegations with hard facts. Lavalas spokesmen dismiss the accusations
as politically motivated and aimed at Aristide, who is now viewed    
with suspicion in Washington because of his sometimes radical rhetoric
and suspected authoritarian tendencies.This is character assassination,"
said Lavalas spokesman Yvon Neptune, who is running for the Senate on
the same ticket as Toussaint. "In the eyes of the Americans, anything
that Aristide does is evil. They are trying to prevent Aristide from
becoming president again later this year."U.S. officials acknowledge
that they have had a rocky relationship with Aristide, but say they will
not stand in the way of his return to power. Their concern, they say, is
with larger issues of constitutional government and forestalling a drift
to one-party dictatorship. "Our candidate in these elections is
democracy and democratic institutions,"said Haiti coordinator Don
Steinberg, here to monitor the election.Public opinion polls--which are
more unreliable in Haiti than elsewhere--suggest that Lavalas is
unlikely to get more than 35 percent of the vote. U.S. officials and
opposition politicians suspect the Preval government had wanted to delay
the election for a new legislature until November to permit Lavalas
candidates to ride to victory on Aristide's coattails. Haitian officials
say the repeated delays were caused for technical reasons. As the
governing party, Lavalas (a Creole word meaning "avalanche")has been
able to mount the most effective campaign, using government-controlled
television to get out its message and dropping hundreds of thousands of
political leaflets from low-flying planes.Opposition politicians
complain that they have lacked the funds to campaign properly, and in
some cases have been physically preventedfrom holding meetings.      
"We used to say that we were a democracy, but we are not ademocracy any
more," said Mirlande Manigat, a political scientist who is running
against Neptune and Toussaint. "In order to be a democracy, you have to
have functioning institutions and a population that believes in
democracy. None of that exists here." Most elections in Haiti since the
fall of the Duvalier dictatorship have  been flawed in one way or
another, or disrupted by violence. Millions of people turned out in 1990
to elect Aristide only to see him overthrown by the military seven
months into his term. Less than 30 percent of Haiti's 4 million voters
went to the polling booths to elect Preval as president in 1995. The
last partial legislative  elections, in 1997, were marred by a turnout
of only 5 percent and  widespread allegations of fraud.