PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 5 ? As Haitians prepared over the weekend to pick a new president, it sounded as if Rose Laporte was going to vote for an old one.
“For 200 years we were hungry,” Ms. Laporte, the 37-year-old mother of two, said during a political rally on Saturday. “Then we had a chance with President Aristide, but they kidnapped him. We want him back.”
On Tuesday this nation crippled by crime, torn by hostilities among the rich and poor, and plundered by decades of corrupt government is scheduled to hold the first of two rounds of national elections, to try again to lift itself up from ruin. Yet there are signs that the country may only be going in political circles.
Two years after an armed uprising ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is living in exile in South Africa, he remains a galvanizing force both among the poor masses who brought him to power and the minority elite who conspired against him.
There is still outrage among his backers about the removal of the man who portrayed himself as a champion of the downtrodden in slums like Cité Soleil and Bel-Air, and anger at American involvement in his removal.
There is also unrelenting hostility toward Mr. Aristide in hillside suburbs, like Petionville, where well-to-do residents attribute a plague of kidnappings and killings to street gangs, known as “chimères,” or “ghosts,” who are believed to have been armed by Mr. Aristide during his presidency.
Those tensions overshadow political discourse. Members of several camps lament that there are more candidates for president ? 32 men and 1 woman ? than there are clear proposals for rebuilding this country, widely described as a failed state.
Campaigns have been dominated by catchy jingles, drunken political rallies and the same hostile language that has pushed Haiti over and over in the past decade to the brink of civil war. Further, while election officials promise a secure and open election, it remains unclear whether the losers will peacefully accept defeat.
Polls indicate that the leading candidate is René Préval, a 63-year-old agronomist who entered politics in 1990 as prime minister to President Aristide and who is widely considered to have been his protégé and the heir to his support among the poor. Mr. Préval was elected president in 1995 and is the only president in this country’s recent history to finish a full five-year term and peacefully hand over power.
In a December Gallup poll sponsored by the United States government, 37 percent of voters polled supported Mr. Préval. But some political analysts predict that he could win more than 50 percent of the votes, and thus the presidency, in the first round.
In order to build trust among the middle classes and elite, Mr. Préval has tried in a weekend blitz of television and radio interviews to put a careful distance between himself and Mr. Aristide, who was accused by his opponents of corruption and of fostering violence. But Mr. Préval has also been careful not to alienate his base of support.
When asked in an interview last month, whether, if elected, he would bring Mr. Aristide back to Haiti, Mr. Préval said that the Constitution did not allow for the permanent banishment of any Haitian. However, he also made clear he would not stand in the way of investigations into charges against Mr. Aristide’s government.
The question of Mr. Aristide’s return “can only be answered by him,” Mr. Préval said at that time. “It is for him to assess this situation.”
In the days leading up to the elections, there have been no major outbreaks of violence in tough neighborhoods like Cité Soleil, giving residents some welcome relief from weeks of gunfights between street thugs and United Nations peacekeepers. Still, political rumblings go on.
Mr. Préval did not attend closing rallies in the capital, fearing outbreaks of disorder among his supporters or attacks by his opponents. Instead, the slight, soft-spoken candidate left the city without fanfare on Sunday morning for his father’s hometown, Marmelade, and made his final campaign appearance in the comfort of friends, who welcomed him like family.
“From what I heard on the radio all day, with the prospect of Préval being president, the elite is already lining up and getting ready to derail him and keep him from governing,” said Dumarsais Siméus, a former candidate for president who was forced to drop out of the race because he is an American citizen.
Mr. Siméus said: “If Préval is elected, he needs to reach out quickly and have members of the elite as advisers and in his government. He’s got to make a pledge that this government is for everyone.”
Almost none of the candidates running for office are new to the political scene. Among them are some elder statesmen, Leslie F. Manigat, 75, who served as president for four months in 1988 before he was overthrown by a military coup, and Marc L. Bazin, 73, sometimes called a chameleon because he has served in nearly every government since that of Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc.
Mr. Bazin served as prime minister under the military government that forced Mr. Aristide from power during his first term as president in 1993. This time around, he tried unsuccessfully to assume the leadership of Mr. Aristide’s Lavalas party.
At a campaign event for Mr. Manigat, Clélie Cauvin, a chemist, said she was very close to supporting him, but worried about his calls for “forgiveness.”
“There is already too much impunity in this country,” said Ms. Cauvin, a mother of four. “We need justice, and punishment for people who commit crimes.”
Former military and police officers are running for president, including Dany Toussaint, a former bodyguard to Mr. Aristide who has been linked by human rights groups to the political assassination of a popular Haitian journalist; and Guy Philippe, who led the rebellion against Mr. Aristide and who has been investigated by the United States government for suspected drug trafficking.
Charles Henri Baker, a 50-year-old garment factory owner, and a leader of the so-called bourgeoisie businessmen who financed the protests that helped topple President Aristide, was running a distant second to Mr. Préval in the December poll, supported by 10 percent of those polled.
As the only white Haitian running for office, the plain-talking Mr. Baker has struggled to prove that he is sympathetic to the struggles of the poor, winning support of the country’s main farmers’ union by promising to invest heavily in agriculture. At nearly every campaign rally, he addresses questions of race.
“People are saying that Charlito Baker is prejudiced,” Mr. Baker said at his closing rally attended by some 300 people last Saturday. “If they say I am prejudiced against chimères, they are right. If they say I am prejudiced against rapists and assassins, they are right. But I am not prejudiced against anyone else.”
Then Mr. Baker repeated his campaign slogan, “Everyone is welcome on this bus.”
Not far away, an estimated 1,000 people danced from Bel-Air to the city’s main plaza in support of Mr. Préval, following the music that blared from stadium-size speakers that were loaded on the backs of a caravan of trucks. In an instant, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods was transformed into a carnival.
No one seemed to care that their candidate was not there. Ms. Laporte, the mother of two at the rally, said: “I trust he knows what we want. We want jobs, and schools and security. We want to live with dignity again.”
That is not all they wanted, however.
“I’m voting for Aristide to return to this country,” said Barnabe Marvil, a high school graduate and aspiring doctor, dancing beneath a banner with Mr. Aristide’s nickname, Titid, a Creole diminutive of Aristide. Later, another group from the rally sang old Aristide campaign songs, and chanted, “Aristide and Préval are twins.”
“We’re voting for Préval,” Mr. Marvil said. “He’ll bring Aristide back.”
Amy Bracken contributed reporting for this article.