U.S. Hopes for Smooth Elections in Haiti

US officials and analysts here are hoping that Haiti’s elections next Tuesday will run smoothly and bring to power a credible government two years after Washington itself helped oust the last elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Unlike recent elections in the two other countries on which the administration of Pres. George W. Bush practiced "regime change" – Iraq and Afghanistan – however, Washington is not trying to draw public attention to next week’s polling, perhaps because of the uncertainty that it will indeed go smoothly, as well as its own embarrassment over how badly this particular change of regime has turned out.

Indeed, the signals coming out of the State Department indicate that Washington is perfectly prepared to work with the front-runner, Rene Preval, Aristide’s hand-picked successor as president in the latter half of the 1990s. According to some observers here, Preval could very well win a majority of votes on the first round and thus avoid a run-off, currently scheduled for Mar. 19.

Preval’s chances of a first-round victory will be enhanced by a large turnout, which in turn depends on the efficiency with which Haiti’s 3.5 million potential voters can cast their ballots and whether violence and intimidation dissuade them from showing up at the 800 voting centers that have been set up around the country.

With only about 11,500 voting booths and a ballot that requires voters to choose one among 32 presidential candidates, as well as candidates for the senate and congress, some analysts believe the electoral authorities will be hard-pressed to process more than 1.5 million voters, potentially excluding tens of thousands of people and laying the groundwork for anticipated protests by losing candidates.

Moreover, because the Haitian National Police and the U.N. peacekeeping force (MINUSTAH) have been unable to secure Cite Soleil – the sprawling slum in Port-au-Prince that is controlled by armed pro-Aristide gangs – some 65,000 registered voters there will have to get to voting centers that are being set up on its outskirts.

"My sense is it’s going to be a mess, because they can’t accommodate the number of people they have to," said Jocelyn McCalla, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York. "And that will open up opportunities for complaints by the opposition."

"We still believe it would’ve been better if they had several hundred more voting centers set up," said Mark Schneider, Washington director of the International Crisis Group, which has been critical of the electoral preparations, "but the distances that even the most far-flung voters will have to travel appear to be within the norm for developing countries."

Violence suppressing voter turnout also looms as a possibility, although most analysts believe that, to the extent it takes place, it is likely to be localized in areas where MINUSTAH, which includes some 8,000 soldiers and 1,500 police, lacks a strong presence. This includes areas where rebel soldiers and paramilitaries who spearheaded the violent campaign to oust Aristide are concentrated, such as in the central part of the country close to the Dominican border.

Still, Amnesty International said Friday it was "extremely concerned" that already-high levels of violence, which resulted in the deaths last month of two Jordanian members of MINUSTAH and in the killings and kidnappings of scores of civilians, could increase during the electoral period.

"Security and respect for the human rights of all Haitians should be the priority of the new government," said Susan Lee, head of Amnesty’s American Program in London. "This will not be possible unless the Haitian authorities and MINUSTAH ensure that candidates and the electorate can participate in the elections without fear for their safety."

"If there are violent events early in the day, it will frighten people, and this, more than anything else, will hurt Preval, because his supporters are the most vulnerable to violence," said Robert Maguire, a Haiti specialist at Catholic University, who recalled the massacres by suspected loyalists of the former Duvalier regime that place in elections in November 1987.

"Violence could very well be orchestrated by those who are fearful of Preval’s victory – those who tend to equate Preval with Aristide," he said.

Some observers are more worried about the immediate post-election period. "The post-electoral situation is going to be more dangerous than the day of the election, unless Preval wins in an overwhelming way as Aristide did in 1990," said Robert Fatton, a Haiti specialist at the University of Virginia. "If it’s close, it’s going to be nasty; people are going to immediately claim fraud or whatever."

And if the election goes to a second round in which Preval may be pitted against former President Leslie Manigat or businessman Charles Baker – both representatives of Haiti’s anti-Aristide elite – the country could become even more polarized than it has been since Aristide’s ouster, according to Fatton.

Schneider, on the other hand, told IPS that Washington and other donors would try to persuade both candidates in a second round to "work together in a new government", particularly because even the losing candidate will likely have a large number of seats in the new parliament.

Above all, however, Washington, like Haiti’s other major supporters, is eager to see the end of the interim government headed by Prime Minister Gerard Latortue that it effectively midwifed after flying Aristide into exile nearly two years ago as the rebels approached the capital.

In addition to repeatedly delaying elections, the government has been criticized for fumbling development aid and jailing hundreds of pro-Aristide activists and associates, including his former prime minister, Yvon Neptune, on questionable charges.

"This government is discredited overall," said McCalla, who noted that its failure to cooperate with the UN resulted in the four delays that preceded Tuesday’s election. "The UN and MINUSTAH are completely upset with the government and Latortue, as is the core group of major supporters," including the US

Washington’s role both in Aristide’s ouster and in bringing Latortue to power – as well as the violence and misery that have ensued – may be one reason why the administration does not want to draw attention to Tuesday’s election.

A lengthy investigative article in the Jan. 29 New York Times provided new details about secret efforts by the quasi-governmental International Republican Institute (IRI) and a network of right-wing political appointees in the State Department to destabilize the twice-elected, twice exiled former president.

The subsequent departure of those appointees, notably former assistant secretaries of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, and their replacement by a career foreign-service officer, Thomas Shannon, improves prospects for a more constructive relationship with a Preval-led Haiti, according to analysts here, who also see the former president as a more pragmatic figure than Aristide.

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.