Early returns in Haiti favor Préval

Former president needs a majority to avoid a run-off

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / February 10, 2006

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- René Préval, who led this impoverished Caribbean nation in the late 1990s, has an early lead in his bid to return to the presidential palace, according to preliminary results of Tuesday's national elections.

With the votes still being counted, Préval was ahead in at least four of the country's 10 voting districts and had captured nearly two-thirds of the vote in the Port-au-Prince area, election officials said last night. Final tallies from the race, as well as from elections for a new national legislature, were not expected until today or tomorrow.

Préval, an agronomist and a leader in the movement to oust the hated former dictator Jean-Claude ''Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986, hopes to win an outright majority among 35 presidential candidates and avoid a March 19 runoff.

Préval has ties to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the populist, democratically elected president who fled into exile in 2004 after armed thugs pledged to push him out violently unless he left office. Some hard-core Aristide supporters in Haiti's slums dream that Préval would bring him back from exile in South Africa.

But even many of Aristide's most fervent supporters say they have moved on, and want to start a new political chapter in Haiti's history with Préval, who built roads and schools when he served as president from 1996-2001.

In Port-au-Prince's decrepit Forte Dimanche neighborhood, posters of Préval and his party, Lespwa (''Hope"), are the only decoration on many of the shacks, and local residents said the area voted overwhelmingly for the former leader. Less than one year ago, residents there had insisted in interviews that they wanted Aristide to return to power, and spray-painted slogans extolling him on the neighborhood's walls.

Resident Emanuel Virgil, 28, said of Préval: ''He can change our lives. He can change this country. I voted for Préval only because of the man."

''We voted for [Préval] and for him only," added Arcelie Orelien, 45. ''It has nothing to do with Aristide."

The Bush administration was not a supporter of Aristide's regime, and did not protect him when he was hounded from office two years ago.

But Timothy Carney, the acting US ambassador to Haiti, said he was not concerned about Préval's former alliance with Aristide and dismissed speculation that Préval would bring Aristide back to Haiti.

''Aristide is as much a man of the past as Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier is," Carney said in an interview. ''I believe the electorate has absolutely understood that."

International election observers, meanwhile, yesterday criticized Haiti's nascent election board for its handling of the national election on Tuesday, citing confusion, nonsecret ballots, and long delays that led to some violence in the nation's first democratic vote in years.

''Our mission wants to congratulate the Haitian people, who by voting en masse managed to quiet the skeptics and show a real will for democracy," said Johan Van Hecke, chief of the European Union election monitoring mission. But ''the technical difficulties" in the voting ''are a great worry to me," he said.

Van Hecke said the monitors found that many polling stations opened late, leading some Haitians in the poorest neighborhood of the capital, Port-au-Prince, to leave the polls in disgust. Illiterate voters in this poorly-educated nation were not given assistance in voting, and the voting centers were set up in a way that allowed people to see how others were casting their ballots.

A separate Canadian team of observers came to similar conclusions, although the chief of the mission, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, was more muted in his criticism.

The findings confirm the complaints this week of many Haitians, who wondered how an election that cost $62 million to prepare in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation could include so many mishaps.

The Haitian election authority ''has not managed to put together the organizational structure that was needed to have a good election," Van Hecke said, adding that Haiti needed to fix the glitches before holding a run-off next month if it proves necessary.

Jacques Bernard, head of the Haitian election commission, noted that chaos on the morning of Election Day -- which resulted in four deaths and some injuries -- had subsided by midday.

''Yes, there were problems, but during the day we solved a lot of those problems," he said.