PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Nothing short of a miracle will make for free and fair elections this weekend, said Evans Paul, a former mayor of Port-au-Prince who now leads one of the nation’s largest opposition parties.
Mr. Paul, also a poet and playwright, spoke just hours after a grenade exploded at the headquarters of Haiti’s Provisional Election Council, which is overseeing elections for parliament and hundreds of local offices.
Five persons were wounded in the Wednesday night blast, the latest in a string of attacks that appear aimed at frightening voters away from the polls. In the two months leading up to Sunday’s vote, assassins have gunned down 15 prominent critics of the government.
Mr. Paul, who in 20 years in politics has survived numerous assassination attempts and a public beating in front of television cameras during a 1991 military coup, blames the ruling Fanmi Lavalas Party led by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide for the latest violence.
“They encourage this violence to physically eliminate their adversaries. They are corrupt, they don’t want these elections to succeed,” Mr. Paul said in an interview Thursday.
“But if the majority of people go out to vote, the Lavalas Party will be defeated.”
The elections, already postponed three times, come 16 months after President Rene Preval dismissed parliament and began ruling by decree.
Some 4 million voters, more than 90 percent of the nation’s electorate, have registered to vote. Each was issued a picture identification card in an attempt to prevent the fraud that has marred previous elections.
At stake are all 83 seats in the lower house, 19 seats in the 27-seat Senate, and more than 7,000 local government positions nationwide. Candidates must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff in follow-up voting on June 25.
The outcome will set the stage for presidential elections in December, when Mr. Aristide, who handed power to his hand-picked successor, Mr. Preval, in 1995, is expected to run again and win.
A low voter turnout as in two previous elections just 5 percent voted in the 1997 parliamentary elections would favor the ruling party and bolster chances of an Aristide victory in December.
Mr. Aristide, in a message delivered during yesterday’s Flag Day national holiday, urged a halt to the violence.
“You who fear defeat and who choose violence, remember we are all brothers and sisters,” he said in a statement.
The vote follows a turbulent decade that began when Haiti’s first free election brought Mr. Aristide to power. A subsequent military coup drove him into exile in the United States, but a U.S. invasion in 1994 restored Mr. Aristide to office.
The results from the 1997 elections were widely disputed, triggering three years of political paralysis.
“To tell you the truth, most Haitians don’t believe in this country anymore. They just want to leave,” said Mr. Paul. “But there are political leaders who believe there is still hope.”
Mr. Paul is one of dozens of prominent politicians in the original Lavalas coalition who brought Mr. Aristide, a charismatic former priest, to power in 1990. They have since split with the former president and his followers.
The split has reverberated in Washington, with the Clinton administration reluctant to cut support for Mr. Aristide, with whom it has close and even personal ties. Former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake is a godfather to Mr. Aristide’s children.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have criticized Haiti’s rulers, first Mr. Aristide and now Mr. Preval, for failing to create a functioning judiciary, an effective electoral system, or a professional police force.
The United States this week warned the Haitian government to “ensure a secure atmosphere for elections and open political debate.”
“We also urge all of Haiti’s leaders to publicly denounce acts of violence and to encourage all citizens to demonstrate their support for democracy by turning out to vote in full force,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday.
Last year’s dismissal of parliament froze some $500 million in international aid to this nation with living standards comparable to sub-Saharan Africa.
As Mr. Paul spoke in a Port-au-Prince home he has converted to a school, 50 children sat quietly in another room having lunch. The Haitian politician said he supports the school for children of his supporters who have been assassinated over the years by successive military dictatorships.
Mr. Paul himself continues to receive death threats. Someone recently called his wife, offering to transfer money into her bank account if she would poison her husband.
Last month, a mob chanting “Aristide or death” set fire to his party’s headquarters at another Port-au-Prince location, gutting the insides of the elegant two-story stone building. When the attack occurred, police did not intervene. A witness said police even opened the front gate to let the mob into the compound.
Mr. Paul said the United States has much at stake in this election and in Haiti’s future. Drug running has increased dramatically, with an estimated 15 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine passing through the country. Meanwhile, desperate Haitians are once again taking to rickety boats for the dangerous 600-mile journey to Miami.
At the same time, he said he understood the unwillingness of Washington to get too involved, as it did in 1994 with an invasion of more than 20,000 troops at a cost of $2 billion.
“The United States has tried everything to help, without success, and they are tired of Haiti,” he said. “It is like an elephant and an ant. The elephant is so huge it cannot get its foot on the ant.”
More than 200 foreign observers will be here for Sunday’s election in an effort led by the Organization of American States. The National Democratic Institute, an arm of the Democratic Party, has also sent a delegation.
Its counterpart, the International Republican Institute, has been banned along with other groups that have been critical of the Preval government.