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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
"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