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#3775: Haitians Flood Polls in Peaceful Vote (fwd)


Haitians Flood Polls in Peaceful Vote                                
Election Viewed as Chance to Bring Impoverished NationBack From Brink of
Anarchy  By Michael Dobbs Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 22, 2000; Page A12 

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 21—Millions of Haitians, some  waiting
patiently for hours, turned out to vote today in elections widely viewed
as crucial to restoring constitutional order and halting the drift
toward anarchy in this impoverished Caribbean nation. As election day
wore on, there were scattered reports of violence and protests by voters
when polling places failed to open because of logistical problems, as
well as now-customary allegations of fraud by rival political parties.
But compared to past Haitian elections, turnout  seemed high and the
voting passed relatively peacefully. "It's going better than I
expected," said William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), one of two U.S.
congressmen on hand to observe the election for a new parliament and
hundreds of municipal councils around this Maryland-size country. "The
strengths so far have been  the lack of violence, the high level of
participation, and the relaxed  atmosphere." Delahunt and other
international observers cautioned that it was still too early to make a
definitive judgment about the credibility of the elections, since the
vote-counting process could drag on for several days and be disrupted on
a variety of pretexts. But the mere fact that the election was held is
itself a significant step for a country that has Known only brutal
political repression for most of its 200-year history. Haiti has been
without a parliament for more than a year as a result of  the inability
or unwillingness of President Rene Preval's left-leaning  government to
organize new elections as scheduled at the end of 1998. Prior to today's
elections, in which 29,500 candidates are competing for an estimated
7,500 national and local positions, there  were just eight popularly
elected officials in the country, apart from  the president.

 International observers said that more than half of the country's 4
million voters had gone to the polls, according to initial estimates,
and that in some parts of the country turnout was as high as 60 or 70  
percent. By most counts, the crowds that turned out were larger than in
any previous Haitian election with the exception of the November 1990   
presidential poll that resulted in a landslide victory for
Jean-Bertrand  Aristide, the former Roman Catholic priest who rode to
power on a wave of popular indignation against the corrupt elites who
had long ruled Haiti. Aristide was overthrown in a military coup after
just seven months in office, but was restored to power in 1994 by U.S.
troops.He was succeeded by his friend Preval in 1996.Initially hailed as
a success story by the Clinton administration, Haiti has become a
political embarrassment for Washington because of the ineffectiveness of
the Preval government in halting a seemingly inexorable trend toward
political and economic chaos. Administration  officials view today's
election as an opportunity to rebut complaints from the
Republican-controlled Congress that there is little to show for        
the $2.2 billion the United States has invested in restoring democracy 
here. Whatever the result of the balloting, today's election has
demonstrated the hunger of ordinary Haitians for democracy and
accountable  political leaders. Many people waited in line for three to
four hours for the opportunity to cast a complicated set of four ballots
for the Senate, the Chamber of Deputies, municipal councils and judges.
"We are desperate for change," said Pierre Rodejeu, 43, a supporter    
of the governing Lavalas party who voted at the Argentine school in    
Port-au-Prince. In 1987, armed thugs disrupted an election by shooting
dead 15 people at the school, shortly after the collapse of the 30-year
 Duvalier dictatorship. "Change is needed at all levels of the country."

 Voting booths opened three hours late at the school because of a lack  
of proper ballots. There were similar delays in many other parts of the
 country. In some places, poll workers failed to show up because they
had no transportation. Other polling places were closed because the
 rent had not been paid. In Cite-Soleil, a slum district of
Port-au-Prince, some voting booths had failed to open by midday.      
"The disorganization is shameful," said Marie-Laurence Lassegue, an    
opposition Senate candidate in Port-au-Prince, "but the number of      
people who have come to vote is really impressive." At some polling
stations, as many as half the registered voters had cast their ballots
by midday. Many political analysts said a high turnout will favor the
opposition, as Lavalas, loyal to Aristide and Preval, counts on a hard
core of disciplined voters. Public opinion polls suggest that Lavalas
will remain the largest political party but will fail to gain an
absolute majority in the new parliament. Candidates must win more than
50 percent of the vote to be elected to either the Senate or the Chamber
of Deputies. A second round of voting has been scheduled for June 25 if
runoff elections are needed.Political violence tapered off significantly
as the election approached.While there were numerous reports of
attempted intimidation, the only confirmed deaths occurred in the
Port-au-Prince suburb of Croix-de-Bouquet when an armed man exchanged
fire with a policeman outside a polling booth. Election officials said
that the  assailant was killed, and the policeman was taken to a
hospital, where he later died.