As violence dropped slightly, officials scrambled to put the final touches to Haiti's elections today. But tension remained high as a former protégé of ousted President Aristide continued as the front-runner.
BY JOE MOZINGO AND JACQUELINE CHARLES
PORT-AU-PRINCE - Amid an uneasy lull in the gunfire and kidnapping that has dogged this capital for months, ballots arrived at voting centers on mules and trucks as the rugged, troubled country prepared for presidential and legislative elections today.
Election officials were still struggling to resolve last-minute problems in what has been a chaotic lead-up to the balloting. But the drop in violence was giving officials and observers a bit of hope that the election will be a peaceful one -- unusual for Haiti.
''All systems are go,'' said Gerard Le Chevallier, the chief of U.N. electoral assi
stance. ``This is going to be the best election Haiti has ever had.''
But tensions remain high, as they have since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country in the face of an opposition movement and an armed rebellion in 2004. Now a one-time protégé of Aristide, the former President René Préval, is the front-runner in the polls, and no one knows who might try to disrupt the election with violence.
Haiti's National Police has said armed groups in the capital, and in the politically tempestuous city of Gonaives, could pose a serious threat on election day.
And then there's the aftermath. Some analysts speculate that an outright Préval victory -- in which he gets more than 50 percent of the vote and does not have to go to a March 19 runoff with the second-place finisher -- could spark violent opposition.
On Monday, U.N. peacekeepers increas
ed patrols and checkpoints along roads around the volatile slum of Cité Soleil.
But by and large the teeming, overcrowded city was as tranquil as it gets. Schools were closed for security concerns. Downtown streets, usually choked with cars and fumes, were nearly wide open. People sauntered along sidewalks and sold fruit in booths along the Champs de Mars, the city's main square.
''I am quite certain we will have a peaceful process tomorrow,'' said José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, who arrived Monday to witness the election. ``Of course, you can never be sure completely.''
Jacques Bernard, head of the Haitian electoral council, tried to reassure the public that heightened security measures are in place, and to vote. ''We will remind every Haitian citizen that Haiti's destiny is in your hands,'' he said during
a news conference.
``Stand up and make your choice.''
Electoral observers and one critic within the council have raised some concerns, however:
• Some Haitians will have to walk miles to their voting centers because there are half the number of centers as in the last election, and because the system failed to register some voters at the center closest to their homes.
• The list of some approved 36,000 poll workers is still in flux as electoral officials try to rectify glitches, and possibly fraud, that resulted in 1,600 cases of names listed multiple times. There is fear that people could end up fighting over the jobs, which pay $50, a substantial sum in a country where the average person earns a dollar a day.
• More than 120,000 political party watchers have signed up for access badges to observe the voting. If that number showed up, there would be more than 10 observers and four poll w
orkers hovering over every polling station, creating pandemonium. Bernard said he will be compelled to limit the number of observers and party watchers to four at each polling station -- a decision bound to arouse hostility from those left out.
• Out of about 800 voting centers, 50 had to be relocated after many voters picked up their ID cards, which carry stickers telling them where to vote. The council has launched a radio and newspaper campaign to announce the changes.
Patrick Féquiere, a member of the electoral council who has been highly critical of the process, said he expects the biggest problems to be chaos caused by poor planning.
''I think that administrative flaws threaten the election more than fraud,'' he said. ``If [today], the people of this country don't accept the obstacles, then I am afraid it's going to be a big flop.''
Féquiere says perhaps 100 of the voting centers as of Monday were
still up in the air, because leases had not been signed with the building owners, or they had lapsed. Bernard said this is simply false -- that there were three or four instances where the owners demanded to be paid before they would allow election workers to enter, and that they were quickly compensated.
By 5 p.m. all of the ballots had been delivered to the proper voting centers. ''The real moment has arrived,'' Bernard said. ``Good elections are the only solution to save our nation.''
http://www.miami.com/multimedia/miami/n ... haiti2006/