- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Today is a critical day for Haiti. Yesterday, U.N. officials found hundreds of smashed ballot boxes and empty vote bags in a dumpster outside Port-au-Prince — all but confirming suspicions of fraud in the Feb. 7 presidential election. Rioters are in the streets. The vote count has ground to a halt. International observers fear the worst.

Once again, Haiti’s fate hinges on a single man’s actions. This time, though, it’s not a dictator’s whim nor is it the thuggish Jean-Bertrand Aristide; it’s Mr. Aristide’s former protege, who’s not yet in office. Leading presidential candidate Rene Preval can defuse this volatile situation, or he can fuel the fires. So far he is fueling the fires by being indignant about the fraud and refusing to see the larger picture. That’s hardly surprising: Mr. Preval seems to be taking his place in Haiti’s long line of short-sighted and demagogic politicians.

Mr. Preval is understandably angry; he was the target of massive voting fraud. By Haiti’s electoral rules, he needed 50 percent plus one vote in this election to win outright or else face a runoff election in March. Fraud appears to have kept him just under 49 percent. Election-day polls showed him nearing 60 percent. So, Mr. Preval is justified to challenge the results. He is urging his supporters to remain in the streets; he wants them to denounce the fraud. He says he will challenge the results if the March election goes forward.

But he’s missing the larger picture. Haiti needs a real act of statesmanship. Mr. Preval faces little danger from the March runoff; his next closest rival got only 11.8 percent of the vote. In theory, Mr. Preval’s opponents could unite against him, but that seems a tall order.

Why not take the higher ground? Mr. Preval could do this relatively easily. He could agree to the March runoff despite the unlawful attacks, tell his followers to go home and talk to people who voted for other candidates. With these few acts he could begin readying handshakes for the many well-wishers in the international community who would applaud such a move. Haiti needs a real leader. Will it be Mr. Preval?

Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; its politics remain among the nastiest. Americans fear having to intervene; we do it every few decades and spend the interim hoping Haiti’s political leaders can somehow solve their problems in ways that keep its desperate people from becoming refugees.

It’s been more than 200 years since Haiti’s last great statesman died of pneumonia in a French prison. How ironic that Toussaint L’Ouverture could be the first great Latin American liberator but the last great Haitian statesman. Unless Mr. Preval changes quickly, he seems set to be the latest in a long and disastrous line of Haitian politicians.

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