Haiti’s first regular election campaign without an assassination culminates today in a ballot few doubt will bring sweeping victory to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s supporters.
With backing from U.N. troops and police officers, Haitians apparently have broken the cycle of violence, but whether they can avoid the fraud that characterized previous ballots remains to be seen.
Twenty-eight parties and some independents are competing in the elections for 101 national legislators and 2,000 local officials. Hundreds of international monitors will observe the balloting.
It is the first democratic election since December 1990, when Aristide was swept to power on the wave of a grass-roots revolt against the dictators who made this Caribbean nation among the poorest in the world.
Nine months later, an army coup forced Aristide into exile and began a three-year reign of terror.
President Clinton threatened the Haitian military with an invasion in September, frightening them into surrendering power. A U.S.-led multinational force disarmed and disbanded the Haitian army, and returned Aristide in triumph in October.
A successful election will be justification for Clinton’s policy, widely unpopular at home because it restored power to a left-leaning radical who denounced U.S. policies until they worked in his favor.
“It’s very important to the United States,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Stan Schrager said Friday. “This is the first real test of Haitian democracy since the return of President Aristide.”
A democratic Haiti would also make it more palatable for the United States to turn away Haitian refugees.
Observers sent by Republicans and Democrats in Washington offered strikingly different forecasts.
“I am confident we will have a good election,” said Brian Atwood, head of a delegation of observers sent by Clinton. “It will not be a perfect election, but I have not been in a country that has had a perfect election.”
The International Republican Institute was gloomier.
“The pre-electoral process and environment in Haiti has seriously challenged the most minimally accepted standards for the holding of a credible election,” said an institute report released Saturday.
Officials of the United Nations, United States and other diplomats whose countries funded the $16.8 million electoral process have dismissed opposition charges that membership of the electoral council and its local appointees are weighted in Aristide’s favor; and that the council could use some 800,000 registration cards announced stolen last month to skew results.
Council President Anselme Remy later backtracked and said the cards were only missing, and ignored opposition calls to publish their serial numbers.
Last week, Remy said some 60,000 of the cards had reappeared but gave no explanation.
Indelible ink and a roster of registered voters make the stolen cards unimportant, observers say.
The government-run media are unashamedly biased, touting only pro-Aristide candidates on television and radio.
Cash-strapped opponents ask where Aristide’s Lavalas Platform party is getting money for an airplane that rains leaflets and banners that flap across the remotest roads.
“All our workers are volunteers from grass-roots organizations. People are always sending money,” said Lavalas legislative candidate JeanLaurent Nelson.
He spoke minutes before he was shot at Thursday at a rally, saved by a bulletproof vest he has been wearing since he heard his rivals wanted him dead.
Nelson was the second candidate shot at in recent days. Others have been threatened by machetewielding and rock-throwing crowds, but no one has been seriously injured, and the bloodshed has been nothing like past campaigns.
Perhaps because the outcome is certain, campaigning has been lackluster, with few rallies with traditional rah-rah bands of steel drums, horns and leather tambourines.
Today’s elections are a prelude to a December presidential ballot that some fear may never be held.
Aristide has promised to honor the constitution, which prohibits him from succeeding himself.
But a House of Assembly filled with supporters could scrap and redraw the constitution for him to recoup the three years of his presidency lost in exile.
“Aristide for 20 years,” “50 years,” “100 years,” is the message of some graffiti around Port-au-Prince - a reminder that dictatorship is all Haitians have ever known.