Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — Since Haiti’s first democratic elections 15 years ago, the nation has been shattered by the violent overthrow of two governments, unrelenting political conflict and several interventions by foreign troops.
But none of the above can dissuade Francois Jules from voting for a new president and legislature Tuesday. The election will be the first since an armed revolt two years ago forced former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power, leaving Haiti in the hands of a U.S.-backed interim government supported by 9,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops. About 85 percent of the nation’s 3.5 million eligible voters are registered.
“I voted in the first free elections in 1990, and I’ll keep voting every chance I get until the day I die,” said Jules, a 50-year-old tailor.
Like many impoverished Haitians — 56 percent of the nation’s 8.5 million inhabitants survive on less than $1 a day — Jules’ conviction matches his faith in the only two democratically elected presidents in Haiti’s 200-year history: Aristide — a former priest who championed the poor — and Rene Preval, who governed between 1996 and 2001.
“I would like Aristide to return, but if that’s not possible, there’s only one other person whom I trust — Preval,” said Jules.
Most polls show Preval, a 63-year-old agronomist, as the presidential front-runner among 35 candidates. He is expected to win at least one-third of the vote, more than three times his nearest competitor, but well short of the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff election on March 19 with the second-place finisher.
Preval is widely respected among the poor for being an honest, efficient administrator. But among Haiti’s tiny business elite, he is nothing more than an Aristide puppet.
“Preval’s candidacy spells disaster for my country,” said Charles Henri Baker, a factory owner who is running a distant second in most polls. Preval has campaigned to reform the nation’s schools, health care and judicial systems, while Baker’s main theme is restoring public order and reforming a corrupt police force.
“Preval gave us nothing. He’s an Aristide crony,” added Baker. “If he won the presidency, Aristide would be back within a week, and it would be February 2004 all over again.”
At that time, U.S. Marines whisked Aristide away to Africa amid a bloody insurrection and charges that he financed armed gangs and tolerated corruption. Aristide, who preceded and succeeded Preval, remains a decisive factor in Haitian politics despite living in exile.
Even though Preval is backed by supporters of the deposed president, he has emerged from Aristide’s shadow in recent weeks, running as a candidate for a coalition of minor political parties known as “the Hope” rather than Aristide’s Lavalas party.
Former Prime Minister Marc Bazin, the Lavalas candidate for president, has publicly vowed to allow Aristide to return to Haiti if he is elected. Preval, on the other hand, argues that it is the former president’s decision. Aristide has not publicly endorsed any candidate.
Unlike Aristide, who was known for his fiery oratory, Preval delivers short speeches and refrains from criticizing his opponents except when asking them to avoid violence and tone down their rhetoric. Some political observers say his low-key campaign is little different than his presidency, when he quietly directed infrastructure projects and an agrarian reform program.
Preval has assuaged international donors and lenders by promising not to challenge Haiti’s free-market policies, according to Adama Guindo, who heads the United Nations Development Program in Haiti. And his candidacy has drawn no public concern from Washington.
If elected, Preval would inherit a country whose economy and environment have been ravaged by years of political violence, corruption and ineffectual government. But some observers say a more prickly issue could be how he deals with Aristide and his armed supporters.
The immense Port-au-Prince slum of Cite Soleil is controlled by armed groups, which officials say has prevented them from putting polling stations in the neighborhood, forcing residents to vote outside the area. Nevertheless, pro-Aristide armed groups in the slum are actively campaigning for Preval, a development that has outraged Haitian business leaders.
“I know Preval personally, and I can say he is a nice guy. He’s easy-going, simple,” said Jean Claude Paulvin, head of the Association of Haitian Economists. “The problem is not with Preval. It’s with the guys around Preval, the gangs. Preval’s going to be held responsible for what the gangs do.”
But most Haitians are more concerned about finding a way out of an ever-worsening economic and political crisis that has left the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere even more impoverished.
“We need a president now. We want Preval,” said Titine, a 45-year-old street vendor who sells chicken parts and complains of rising prices and dwindling customers. “Deliver us.”