Haiti Cautiously Moves Forward

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It may not be the ideal solution, but at least the one announced by Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) Thursday reflects the clear presidential choice of the Haitian people: Rene Garcia Preval was just below the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff when the vote was halted Tuesday — after Preval had threatened a legal battle over charges of massive fraud, citing tens of thousands of ineligible and blank ballots. His point was underscored later on Tuesday when supporters discovered thousands of apparently legitimate ballot papers and electoral material containing votes for Preval that had been tossed in a dump just outside the capital.

Preval met the CEP on Wednesday, and negotiated a technical solution: The total number of blank votes would be divided among the 33 candidates on the basis of the percentage of the counted vote accrued by each. That formula pushed Mr. Preval, who even by the CEP's count had won more than four times the number of votes of his nearest rival, over the 50 percent mark, and prompted a massive celebration by hundreds of thousands of supporters who had taken to the streets in protest to defend their vote.

Although the international community quickly embraced the solution — the Organization of American States called it a "significant step towards building the country's future on democracy" — foreign diplomats were also quick to point out that this was a Haitian solution to a Haitian crisis. "We weren't part of the agreement," U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said. "But we support it and are ready to move forward to the second round [of voting] for senators and deputies."

But the March 19 legislative vote may face many of the same organizational and logistical problems that plagued the presidential poll, and there has been little inclination in Haiti's political class to delve too deeply into just how the country's most expensive elections ever could have been conducted with such lax oversight. Preval has intimated that he has proof of the fraud, which can be traced to polling station workers. Those 36,000 positions were prized by members of the various political parties, and Preval may not want to open the lid on that pot, particularly now that the vast majority of presidential candidates have recognized his victory. Those close to Preval say that the evidence may surface later, but for now they will simply remain vigilant. "What else can you do? There aren't any other options," said one of the president-elect's advisers.

Not necessarily, said Robert Maguire, a professor at Trinity University, who has been following Haitian politics for more than two decades. "At some point Haiti has to start enforcing a regime of a rule of law. Where it starts, I don't know, but the sooner the better." And that's where Preval may have a chance to distinguish himself. An important Haitian judicial landmark occurred during Preval's first presidency, with the unprecedented conviction of 15 members of the military and former paramilitaries for a 1994 massacre of more than 20 people. And his response to the crowds this week has been significantly more statesmanlike than that of his predecessor Jean Bertrand Aristide. In 1990, shortly after Aristide was elected but before he took office his supporters had blocked an attempted coup d'etat, but then went on a rampage, burning buildings and attacking anti-Aristide leaders. Aristide's response was not to tell his supporters to go home; instead he said he was just the president-elect and had no authority. Preval, on the other hand, asked the crowds this week to be vigilant but respectful. One hopes that's a sign of what's to come.