- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — More than 19 months after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was pushed from power in February 2004, members of his Lavalas Party could be the decisive factor in presidential elections scheduled for next month.

Analysts say two of the top contenders are vying for support of the Lavalas Party, which continues to dominate the political landscape. Lavalas leaders are backing Marc Bazin, a former prime minister and World Bank economist, but the rank-and-file appears to favor former President Rene Preval.

“The masses in this country are still Lavalas,” said Marcus Garcia, a veteran Haitian journalist who runs Radio Melodie and Haiti en Marche, a weekly newspaper. “With Aristide gone, everybody wants a piece of the cake, a piece of Lavalas. … Bazin has the support of the Lavalas bureaucrats, but Preval has the support of the grass roots.”

Lavalas has no candidate of its own. At a Lavalas convention last month, party militants nominated imprisoned priest and Aristide ally the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, but he was later barred from running by the Provisional Electoral Council.

Father Jean-Juste was arrested in July in connection with the kidnapping and killing of journalist Jacques Roche, but he has not been charged and Amnesty International considers him a “prisoner of conscience.”

Mr. Bazin and Lavalas make for an odd match. In 1990, Mr. Bazin, thought to be favored by Washington, faced off against Mr. Aristide in Haiti’s first democratic elections. Mr. Aristide trounced him, winning more than two-thirds of the vote, but less than eight months later he was ousted in a military coup.

From 1992 to 1993, Mr. Bazin served as prime minister under the military regime, and later returned to the government as planning minister under Mr. Aristide himself in 2001 in an appointment that was seen as a concession to the opposition.

Now, Mr. Bazin, running on the ticket of his own Movement for the Establishment of Democracy in Haiti (MIDH) party, is appealing to Aristide supporters. He is calling for an end to persecution of Lavalas partisans by the interim government, and he has promised to free political prisoners, including Father Jean-Juste, former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and pro-Aristide activist Annette “So Anne” Auguste. He also has vowed to bring Mr. Aristide back to Haiti.

“The constitution is clear,” said Mr. Bazin, who describes himself as a social democrat. “It does not allow Haitians to be in exile, and we will start with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is the one the people love the most.”

The Bush administration is adamantly opposed to the return of Mr. Aristide, whom U.S. officials have accused of tolerating drug trafficking, corruption and human rights abuses while his list of enemies grew and his support shrank during his last presidency.

Mr. Bazin has received the backing of prominent Lavalas politicians, such as former Sens. Gerard Gilles and Yvon Feuille, and Lavalas leader the Rev. Yvon Massac, considered a confidant of Mr. Aristide’s.

But it is not clear whether Mr. Aristide, who has been silent from his exile in South Africa, supports Mr. Bazin.

For his part, Mr. Preval remains an enigma. He has not spoken to the press or made any public appearance for years, and he has remained in seclusion since registering his candidacy. During his 1996-2001 presidency, Mr. Preval was characterized by his detractors as a puppet of Mr. Aristide, but he also was praised for being an honest and efficient administrator who spurned the wrangling and strong-arm methods typical of Haitian politics.

While his low-key personality contrasts sharply with the charismatic Mr. Aristide, Mr. Preval nonetheless seems to be popular among Haiti’s majority poor.

Ultimately, the election will be decided not by party leaders or even grass-roots militants, but by the millions of Haitian peasants and slum dwellers who in the past have identified with Lavalas as a popular movement, according to Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia.

“Nobody can win this election without getting the Lavalas vote, or what was the Lavalas vote,” Mr. Fatton said, “but it’s still hard to tell just where that large portion of the population finds itself.”

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