Voters Push for Change in Haiti

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The winner of Haiti's presidential elections this week has yet to be announced, but the poll is being hailed as a success—a turnout of over 50%, the lack of organized violence and absence of widespread fraud signal a widespread commitment among Haitians to transform their political landscape. The turnout and orderly running of Haiti's most expensive ($75 million) may have surprised a skeptical international community, but it was no surprise to the Haitian people. Since last September, they have seen the election postponed four times as a result of the incompetence of the electoral council and a bungling, ineffective interim government muscled in by the United States after the forced departure of Jean Bertrand Aristide two years ago. Although most of the 802 polling stations were ill-prepared for the hundreds of thousands of people who began lining the streets before dawn, by the time the sun was overhead queues were moving steadily and voters were proudly displaying their thumbs, stained by markers upon their exit from the polling booth.

The most common refrain among voters was a call for change, even though the government has changed hands more than a dozen times since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship 20 years ago—and has seen 35 coups since it declared independence in 1804. The only democratically elected president to have completed his term of office is René Garcia Préval, today's presidential frontrunner—initial results tabulated in and around the capital give him a 60% lead. For the last five years, the 63-year old agronomist has been astutely observing the political scene from the quiet of his rural hometown, Marmelade. His decision to run under a new political party signaled his independence from Aristide's Lavalas Family party and marked his autonomy from the man many had deemed his political twin. At the same time, Préval has profited from the support of Aristide partisans, many of whom are armed gang members that live in the poorest sections of the capital. Polls show Préval leading the field of 33 candidates, but if no candidate achieves a majority, the top two finishers will contest a runoff on March 19.

The challenge facing the winner will be to create a government acceptable not only his own supporters, but also those of the losers. That's the only way the election can mark the beginning of a political healing process.

"You can't govern in Haiti alone," added Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group. "You need sufficient cooperation from the losers so that parliament can function and the government can deal with the fundamental problems that makes Haiti the last on every list of human security issues in the hemisphere." Literacy and employment are less than 50 percent and potable water is available to only 25 percent of Haiti's 8 million-plus people. The annual income is $390 per person, less than it was in 1995 allowing for inflation.

The level of polarization afflicting Haiti today makes national reconciliation a tall order. Some presidential candidates have already made it clear that should Préval win, they will not support him. Most aggressive is businessman Charles Henri Baker, running second in the opinion polls. Pointing to his rival's 1996-2001 tenure, he said, "Nothing positive was done for the country under his leadership. I will watch him closely. If things go the democratic way, great, but if he is back to his own ways, we're the opposition." Another leading contender, 75-year-old political science professor Leslie Manigat, says Haiti is at a turning point. "It needs someone who can build, create unity,” he says, adding that Préval is not that man.

Rooting out the corruption that pervades every level of state administration is an equally important priority, because it has left the international donor community reluctant to deliver more than 10 percent, thus far, of its 2004 pledge of $1.2 billion in development aid. Still, foreign governments say they'll support a new government that demonstrates a commitment to inclusiveness, transparency, and disarmament of the gangs that rule many urban areas.

The greatest problem facing any new leadership in Haiti may lie in convincing Haitians and their friends abroad that things are going to change for the better. "Each time there is a new government we say the same things, then support [for Haiti from abroad] appreciably drops," admits Elizabeth Spehar, who has been working with the Special Mission and Electoral Technical Assistance Program of the OAS in Haiti. "We dump money into elections, then get distracted so that every ten years there's another crisis. The election is the big mamou. It's the starting point, but if you just leave it at that you're doomed."