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What election hopes for Haiti?

Nick Caistor
3 February 2006

It seems that Haitians will finally get their chance to elect a new president on 7 February, after four postponements of the polling date. It also seems likely that the winner will be former president René Préval. Beyond this, anything is possible.

The elections are taking place almost two years since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted on 29 February 2004. The United States, France and other western countries said he left of his own free will, realising that he could not hold the country together in the face of increasing violence. He and his supporters claim he was kidnapped and put on a plane out of Haiti. He now lives in exile in South Africa, where Thabo Mbeki welcomed him.

Since his removal, there has been an ineffectual caretaker government led by the unfortunately-named Gérard Latortue (or Mr Tortoise as he is known, appropriately for his slowness in getting anything at all implemented). Some 9,000 UN troops and police (known as Minustah) brought in two years ago, have struggled to restore order and keep the peace, especially in the slum areas of the capital Port-au-Prince, where at least a third of the country’s 8.5 million inhabitants live.

The lack of security both in the capital and in country areas has been one of the reasons for the repeated delay in holding the elections for a new president and parliament. Another has been the difficulty in getting new voter lists and voting cards ready, and establishing just how many polling stations there will be. And yet another source of delay has been establishing how many of the candidates were eligible to stand – despite some being disqualified, voters will still face a choice between more than thirty presidential hopefuls, and a multitude of groups vying for representation in parliament.

This voting chaos is nothing new in Haiti. Ever since ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier was pushed out in 1986, elections have been violent and have rarely resolved any of the country’s pressing problems. When Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then still a popular priest, first came to power in 1990 at the head of the Lavalas grassroots movement, he only lasted a few months before the military kicked him out. Reinstated thanks to US intervention in 1994, he was only allowed to complete what had been his original term in office.

It was in 1996 that René Préval, a trusted ally of his, took over the presidency. The Préval years now look like a period of relative calm and stability – there was a more or less functioning parliament and local government, the economy picked up slightly, and there was enough government money to embark on some desperately-needed infrastructure projects. The army was abolished, and with the help of the United Nations, efforts were made to create a new police force, and to clean up the judicial and penal systems.

But Préval stood down at the end of 2000, to be replaced again by Aristide. At that point, Aristide still commanded widespread support, and it appeared that finally Haiti might make economic and social progress, with the country united behind him.

As so often throughout Haiti’s history, this promise came to nothing. Elections for senators in 2001 were dismissed as rigged by the opposition, who from then on boycotted parliament. The UN, which had been present in Haiti since the 1994 restoration to power of Aristide pulled out of the country after seven years of frustration.

By late 2003, discontent with the Aristide government had grown so widespread that uprisings in the countryside became increasingly violent, and by the start of 2004, Aristide’s position was untenable. At first, the rebels were a mixture of thugs and people armed by the now rampant drug gangs, but many opposition politicians soon jumped on the bandwagon and demanded that Aristide go.

So, at the very end of February 2004, willing or not, he was put on a plane out of Haiti. From his exile in South Africa, Aristide has dismissed the upcoming elections as fraudulent, as he is still the elected president of Haiti. He has called on his supporters to boycott the vote, but, if the opinion polls are to be believed, many of those in the Lavalas movement will vote for Préval, still believing he is the person who will carry on the Aristide legacy.

Préval himself has sought to distance himself from Aristide and Lavalas, creating his own movement, L’Espwa (Creole for the French word ‘hope’). His emergence as frontrunner has already led several of the other candidates to threaten to pull out of the race, threatening to plunge Haiti back into the kind of political stalemate which characterised it from 2001-2004. There is also a fear that opposition supporters, or even Lavalas members still loyal to Aristide, will seek to create such a climate of violence and fear that the elections cannot take place with proper guarantees of security for voters and candidates. This threat will be even greater if – as seems probable – Préval does not win the presidency outright in the first round of voting.

If that proves to be the case, it will be essential for the Minustah forces to stay on in Haiti to at least give the new government the chance to make a fresh start. The international community has so far pledged more than US$1 billion for development projects, but money will be the least of the new president’s problems. First, he will have to decide what to do about Aristide. If he is allowed back in the country, his presence may destabilise anyone else’s attempts to govern. If he is not brought back, or persuaded to back the new government, his disaffected supporters could also make life impossible for the incoming authorities.

Whatever the outcome, these elections will probably do little to advance either democracy or the chances for peace in this chaotic, unhappy country.

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