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#3809: Washington Post FWD - Aristide's Party Leading in Haitian Vote (fwd)


Aristide's Party Leading in Haitian Vote
Haitians discuss valid ballots they found Monday in the street in front of a 
ballot collection center in downtown Port-au-Prince. It is not clear how the 
ballot boxes with the votes ended up strewn on the street. (AFP) 
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 23, 2000; Page A01 

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 22 –– The ruling Lavalas party of former 
president Jean-Bertrand Aristide appeared today to be headed for a 
significant victory in national and local elections that could put an end to 
a protracted constitutional crisis in Haiti. 

International observers described Sunday's elections for parliament and 
hundreds of local councils as generally credible despite numerous 
irregularities in voting and ballot counting. While opposition politicians 
sought to draw attention to noteworthy cases of fraud and voter intimidation, 
they stopped short of describing the entire election as invalid.

The apparent Lavalas victory, which has yet to be confirmed officially, could 
open the way for Aristide's return to power in the presidential election 
later this year and, if he is elected again, give him a free hand to run the 
country without interference from an opposition-controlled legislature.

A former Roman Catholic priest who as president antagonized many among 
Haiti's establishment, Aristide was overthrown by a military coup in 1991 and 
restored to office three years later by a U.S. military intervention--only to 
be forced to step down in 1996 because of a constitutional requirement 
barring Haitian presidents from succeeding themselves.

But Sunday's election returns--and a higher than expected 60 percent 
turnout--suggested that Aristide retains the support of a large section of 
the Haitian population, particularly among the poor he has championed, while 
at the same time he is loathed by many members of the country's commercial 
establishment. His likely return to power is also being viewed with 
trepidation by U.S. officials, who are alarmed by his sometimes radical 
liberation theology and ambiguous record on condemning political violence.

International observers who monitored the vote count said Lavalas candidates 
appeared to have taken a clear lead in a number of crucial races, 
particularly in the Port-au-Prince region but also in some other parts of the 
country. If the results are confirmed, Aristide supporters could gain an 
absolute majority in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Official 
results are not expected until later in the week.

While voting proceeded peacefully in most of the country, opposition 
politicians cited cases of intimidation by Lavalas activists and an incident 
in the central Hinche region, where armed gunmen stole several ballot boxes. 
After votes were counted in one electoral district of downtown 
Port-au-Prince, the capital, ballots were seen strewn in the street.

This afternoon, violent clashes erupted in Port-au-Prince between Lavalas 
supporters and activists from a rival political party. During the 
disturbances, an opposition candidate for mayor was struck in the head with a 
rock and died of his injuries, witnesses said. Several opposition activists 
were injured and others sought refuge in the nearby offices of the U.S. 
Agency for International Development.

On the whole, however, international observers pronounced themselves 
satisfied. According to the head of the international observer mission, 
Orlando Marville of Barbados, violent incidents were limited to 15 polling 
stations out of more than 11,000.

The leader of a two-man U.S. congressional delegation, Rep. John Conyers Jr. 
(D-Mich.), described himself as "totally pleased and happy" with the way the 
election was conducted.

In addition to concentrating political power in the hands of Aristide's 
Lavalas movement--Lavalas means "avalanche" in Creole--Sunday's election 
could also lead to the unblocking of more than $500 million in international 
assistance to Haiti. The aid had been frozen because of the absence of a 
constitutionally formed government and parliament and repeated delays by 
President Rene Preval in setting a date for new elections.

The seemingly impressive nature of the Lavalas victory took U.S. officials 
and many international observers here by surprise. Opinion polls, including 
one funded by USAID, had predicted that Lavalas would get no more than 30 to 
35 per cent of the vote. Many had predicted a low turnout. But other analysts 
pointed out that the U.S. Embassy has consistently underestimated Aristide's 
popular appeal, beginning in 1990, when he was elected president with more 
than 80 per cent of the vote.

Ironically, the Clinton administration may have contributed to the Aristide 
myth by putting heavy pressure on him to step aside in 1996 in favor of 
Preval. Aristide wanted to serve an additional three years as president to 
make up for the three years of military rule. By withdrawing from the 
limelight for the last five years, he has avoided blame for the country's 
economic and political problems and is still seen as a figure of hope.

Among the Lavalas candidates who seem likely to win office are several close 
associates of Aristide who have been accused by the Clinton administration of 
involvement in political murders and drug dealing. Aristide's former security 
chief, Dany Toussaint, appeared headed for a convincing first-round victory 
in a closely watched Senate race in a huge district of Western Haiti that 
includes Port-au-Prince.

"We are not the 51st state," said Patrick Brutus, an opposition candidate for 
mayor of Port-au-Prince. "It is not up to the Americans to decide who will or 
won't be elected in this country."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company