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#3774: Vote turnout high in Haiti despite risk (fwd)


Published Monday, May 22, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Vote turnout high in Haiti despite risk BY DON BOHNING 

 PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Defying fears of violence and overcoming
organizational disarray, Haitians turned out in massive numbers Sunday
for a critical vote to elect a parliament and 7,500 local
 officials. They trudged to the polls by the thousands from 6 a.m. to 5
p.m., putting the country on the road to restoration of a fully
functioning government for the first time in three years as well as a
new parliament and local governing bodies, both shut down since January
1999. Early indications were that Sunday's vote was free, fair and
flawed. It was an election marked by an unexpectedly high voter turnout
and the absence of any significant violence, but one with serious
administrative and logistical deficiencies. ``It's a watershed,'' said
Rep. William Delahunt, a Boston Democrat who is part of a U.S. electoral
observer mission. ``If it had been a total disaster, the international
 community would disengage, then Haiti would be heading toward anarchy.
There's some hope.'' Election results are not expected until the end of
the week, with a June 25 runoff scheduled to decide contests for all 83
lower chamber slots and 19 of 27 Senate seats at stake. There is no
runoff for local posts. Escalating political violence in recent weeks,
culminating with a grenade tossed at the Electoral Council headquarters
last Wednesday, had been expected to dampen turnout for Sunday's vote.
 The only incident reported by midafternoon Sunday came in
Croix-des-Bouquets, a town about 15 miles from Port-au-Prince. There,
according to radio accounts, a man armed with a machete and a gun shot a
policeman at a voting station. Police returned fire, killing the gunman.
The wounded policeman later died in a hospital. Instead of staying away
Sunday, voters turned out early and demonstrated remarkable patience,
with many showing up at the polls before dawn and waiting in line for
hours to cast their ballots. More often than not, polling stations did
not begin functioning until two or three hours after their scheduled 6
a.m. opening.

 In some cases -- among them Cite Soleil, a teeming Port-au-Prince slum
of about 200,000 people -- only five of 18 voting stations in one school
had opened by early afternoon. ``We are thirsting to vote,'' declared
Jean Marcel, 32, outside an unopened voting site. He soon joined others
in a protest demonstration. In other instances, electoral officials,
ballots and voting registers and other materials had not been delivered,
or sites were not allowed to open because rent had not been paid. Some
voters could not find their voting locations. At a voting site in
Carrefour, a congested suburb on the edge of Port-au-Prince,
 Jean Patrick Charles, an exasperated Haitian electoral observer,
declared the situation ``a complete disaster'' at 8:15 a.m., citing
unsealed ballot boxes and other problems. Tape was found, the number of
ballots inside each box counted, and the box sealed. Two hours later,
Charles said everything was going well. Voter after voter told reporters
and electoral observers that they were voting for change and for a
better Haiti. ``We have to get a change because the country is in
trouble,'' Marie Lucia Torchin, 43, a food vendor, said as she waited to
vote in Leogane, a town 30 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince.
 ``The Haitian people want to decide for themselves; it's the only way
to rebuild this country,'' said Marie Lawrence Lessegue, an opposition
Senate candidate.


 The percentage of the four million registered voters who actually voted
was not yet clear by late Sunday, but it was evident that the turnout
was the best since 85 percent of the electorate voted in 1990 elections
won by Jean-Betrand Aristide. That election was considered the first
free and fair election in nearly 200 years of Haiti's independence.
 Only 25 percent voted in 1995 elections won by incumbent President Rene
 Preval. The constitution prohibited Aristide from succeeding himself,
but he is widely expected to be the favored candidate in presidential
elections later this year. International observers said an hour before
polls were to close that they were getting reports of a 50 percent
turnout all over the country and as high as 60 to 70 percent in some
areas. At the Argentine Bellgarde School in downtown Port-au-Prince,
most of the 11 voting stations didn't open until after 9 a.m., but by 11
a.m. everything appeared to be going smoothly. The school was the site
of a November 1987 midmorning Election Day massacre by military-backed
thugs with guns and machetes who killed about 15 people as
 they waited in line to vote. The military then called off the
elections. Once the polls opened Sunday, things were much more tranquil,
although 1987 had not been forgotten. ``It was a catastrophic event,''
remembered Pierre Ville Rodriguez, a nearby resident who had voted
before the massacre.

 Rodriguez said he, too, was voting again for change as he had hoped to
do in 1987, but he remained a supporter of Aristide's Lavalas Family
party and did not blame Aristide and the party for the country's
deterioration. Sunday's vote essentially was seen as a contest between
Lavalas -- with the apparent backing of President Rene Preval and his
government -- against virtually all others on the ballot, whether they
were independents or party-sponsored candidates. It's widely believed
that Aristide wanted to delay the parliamentary vote to combine it with
the presidential election later this year, hoping to benefit from the
coattail effect to ensure a parliamentary majority. Concern remains that
reasons might still be found to postpone the June 25 parliamentary
runoff until the presidential vote. But, warned Alix Fils-Aime, an
independent opposition candidate for senator, ``People want change, and
they have come out for change today. If anyone tries to manipulate the
vote, they won't stand for it.''