- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti One man is caught on film by a U.S. news photographer voting twice in different polling stations in a seaside slum of Port-au-Prince.

An official at another polling place across town stands beside an elderly woman and, when asked, tells her to vote for candidates of the ruling party.

Shortly after polls close, the ruling party announces it has won all 102 parliamentary seats at stake, even though final results will not be available for a week.

Following Sunday's vote, international observers concluded that the thin, stunted roots of Haiti's 6-year-old democracy had survived, and perhaps were thrust deeper into a land terrorized by dictators for much of its 200-year history.

Despite some irregularities on election day, a 200-member observer group organized by the Organization of American States (OAS) gave the contest a passing grade, calling them both "free and transparent."

"Fairness is another issue," said Guy Michel Vincent, a consultant and political analyst who runs a think tank affiliated with the private Foundation for a New Haiti here in the capital.

"I fear massive fraud. The [ruling] party controls the elections, so there's no way to ensure that the count is honest," he said.

Fears of an election-day massacre like one in 1987 evaporated Sunday as voters cast ballots for the 83-member Chamber of Deputies, 19 seats in the Senate and 7,500 local officials nationwide.

Police kept order, and Haitians voted en masse instead of staying home as during elections three years ago, when just 5 percent showed up. The results of those elections were annulled because of widespread fraud.

People lined up beside piles of garbage in the slums of Port-au-Prince for a chance to cast ballots. Leaving the one-room shacks they call home, they walked twisted mountain roads and waited for hours outside polling stations, women in long dresses and men in freshly washed rags.

The otherwise peaceful election was marred by a shootout in one neighborhood near the capital in which two persons died a lone gunman and a policeman firing back in self-defense.

The OAS said it was investigating reports of armed gangs intimidating voters in the countryside where some places are so remote that ballots are carried to and from polling stations by donkey.

Haitian radio yesterday carried reports of mobs breaking into polling stations after voting ended and darkness fell, carting away marked and unmarked ballots.

At many sites amid the rutted streets and crumbling homes of Port-au-Prince, election day took on a festive air as if people were enjoying a well-deserved rest after months of campaign violence.

Such enthusiasm had not been witnessed since Haiti's first successful election in 1990, when voters chose as president a charismatic former Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Now, after observing election-day crowds, members of the OAS mission sound hopeful that the turnout exceeded their goal of 50 percent.

At polling stations, voters expressed hope that elections somehow could deliver them from perpetual misery.

"Everything would change if we had real democracy," said Edith Jean, 42, a tiny woman who borrows money to feed three small children a single meal a day soup and rice with butter and spices.

Amid the struggle to survive and uncertainty over whether Haiti has just held a reasonably honest election, fear of politically related killings remain part of life in Haiti.

Assassins killed 15 persons in the two months leading up to Sunday's voting. Most were critics of the present government. Instead of campaigning, opposition candidates kept their heads down after mobs backing the ruling Fanmi Lavalas party pelted their rallies with rocks and bottles of urine.

Just yesterday, a mob clubbed to death a candidate from a minor opposition party who was running for a municipal post in Port-au-Prince.

Mr. Vincent said he fears more of the same between now and the June 25 runoff elections for races in which no candidate received at least 50 percent-plus-one vote.

"We had so many attacks and killings before today's vote because the government is determined to win a majority. If it doesn't win today, then we can expect more of the same," he said.

Though the government of President Rene Preval and the Fanmi Lavalas party of Mr. Aristide deny any responsibility, many blame both for either instigating the campaign violence or doing little to prevent it.

Mr. Aristide's supporters in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil bristle at suggestions that the ex-priest is responsible.

"It's like throwing rocks at a ripe mango. Whenever a person tries to do good, he always gets criticized," said a tall, thin activist who calls himself "Black Justice."

Those who believe Mr. Aristide and his more militant supporters are behind the attacks include Gerard Pierre-Charles, leader of the largest opposition party. It consists of former allies of Mr. Aristide who have broken with him and his chosen successor, Mr. Preval.

"It has to do with his [Mr. Aristide's] vision of power. Violence is a way to keep a hold on people," asserted Mr. Pierre-Charles.

He hopes to unite a fragmented opposition behind a single presidential candidate to run in December against Mr. Aristide, who is expected to seek another term as president.

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