PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti A gunfight yesterday that killed two near a Port-au-Prince polling station and scattered reports of violence and intimidation marred what international observers called a surprisingly peaceful election with an overwhelming voter turnout.
“They got it together at the last minute, what else can you say,” said one businessman, a harsh critic of the government who asked not to be named.
A lone gunman and a policeman died yesterday during the shootout near a polling-station in the suburb of Croix des Bouquets, according to radio news reports.
Haitian radio also reported that a mob in the eastern town of Hinche trashed one polling station, dumping ballots on the floor after demanding, without success, that election officials accompany people in voting booths.
Most polling stations opened two to three hours late, forcing long lines of voters, many dressed in their Sunday best, to stand in the blazing tropical sun to choose a new parliament and fill thousands of municipal offices nationwide.
The vote followed a violent campaign in which 15 persons, most critics of the ruling Lavalas Party, were killed and mobs loyal to the party attacked opposition rallies with rocks and bottles of urine.
Many in the opposition claimed the ruling Lavalas Party was behind the attacks and assassinations that effectively prevented opponents from campaigning. Lavalas officials denied the charges and blamed the opposition.
Haitians voted for the entire 83-member Chamber of Deputies and 19 seats in the 27-member Senate. In addition, more than 29,000 candidates vied for some 7,500 municipal posts.
Final results are not expected for a week in a nation where some villages are so remote that ballots had to be transported by donkey.
Candidates who win with less than 50 percent of the vote face a runoff with the second-place finisher in elections scheduled June 25.
A successful election would create a functioning parliament and permit the distribution of $500 million in foreign aid to a nation of 7.5 million where most people live on less than a dollar a day.
Opposition parties boycotted yesterday’s elections on La Gonave Island in Port-au-Prince Bay, charging that polling stations were staffed solely by ruling party members.
At one polling station in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, witnesses told Reuters news agency that voting was cut short when a red truck sped away with the ballot boxes four hours before the polls were supposed to close.
In the seaside slum of Cite Soleil, angry voters demonstrated when eight of 120 polling stations had no voting materials and another 20 never opened, Radio Vision 2000 reported.
But otherwise, an overwhelming police presence combined with orders keeping private vehicles off the street and banning alcohol sales produced calm in this sprawling capital of rutted streets and squalid homes.
“The bottom line is that voters are participating,” said Donald Steinberg, the Clinton administration’s coordinator on Haiti. “It shows that the people of Haiti have not given up hope.”
“There’s a real thirst for democracy here,” said Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts, one of five visiting U.S. lawmakers. All were Democrats.
Just six years ago, a U.S. invasion restored democracy by bringing then-exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to office. He handed power over to his chosen successor, Rene Preval, who won elections in 1995.
Since then, efforts to build a modern democracy had faltered. Parliamentary elections in 1997 were annulled amid widespread reports of fraud and a voter turnout of barely 5 percent. Mr. Preval dismissed parliament in January 1999 and has ruled by decree ever since.
Mr. Delahunt compared the task of turning Haiti into a democracy to moving the Titanic. “This is like bringing it up from the bottom of the ocean. We can’t do it overnight.”
The turnout in yesterday’s election was not immediately known but unofficial estimates said it was the heaviest since Haiti’s first successful democratic election in 1990, when Mr. Aristide won with 67 percent of the ballot.
“We want change. These elections should have happened much sooner,” said Yvon Bleus, 23, who stood in line beside a feted canal of untreated waste in Cite.
“Even if real democracy hasn’t happened yet, sooner or later it will and then we will have plenty of jobs,” said Raymond Marcel, 53, an unemployed plumber. Haiti’s unemployment rate stands at more than 60 percent and conditions have deteriorated sharply in the six years since Mr. Aristide’s return.
Election officials blamed yesterday’s delays on drivers who did not deliver ballots on time and poll workers who demanded to be paid before voting was to have begun.
While things proceeded fairly peacefully, some observers expressed fears of corruption by the ruling party.
“I fear massive fraud when the ballots are counted. The ruling party controls the elections, so there’s no way to ensure that count is honest,” said Guy Michel Vincent, a political analyst and consultant.
Mr. Vincent worked with the Washington-based International Republican Institute until last June, when the group pulled out of Haiti citing threats to its members. Until then, it conducted workshops to help the nation’s fragmented opposition build functioning political parties.
Mr. Vincent also said he feared more violence between now and the June runoff.