Jean-Bertrand Aristide was once hailed as Haiti’s democratic champion. Now, his second presidency is declining into despotism. Last year’s legislative elections, faced with a threatened opposition boycott, never took place. The legislature has been dissolved, leaving Mr. Aristide free to rule by decree. Almost daily, street protesters demand the president’s resignation and are met by armed pro-Aristide gangs and a thoroughly politicized police force. Over the past few months, some 50 people have been killed in the resulting street clashes.

Many of Mr. Aristide’s opponents insist that no solutions are possible until he leaves office. That may be. But he was democratically elected to a five-year term, which does not run out until early 2006. Cutting short that term by unconstitutional means would only perpetuate Haiti’s unhappy 200-year history of dictatorships, punctuated by revolutionary upheavals and military coups. A better solution would be to make sure that the next presidential election, due late next year, is fair and on time.

That will probably require international as well as domestic pressure. The 15-nation Caribbean Community is already trying to mediate between Mr. Aristide and opposition leaders. It is pressing a package of desirable reforms that could calm political violence in the streets. The Organization of American States also wants to help.

Washington, which seems to feel a kind of “Haiti fatigue,” should look for ways to energize these diplomatic efforts. A decade ago, after Mr. Aristide’s first term had been cut short by a military coup, American troops helped restore him to power for the sake of Haitian democracy. Preserving what remains of that democracy now depends on ensuring a free presidential election in 2005.