Few Haitians Cast Presidential Votes
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Fear, apathy and an opposition boycott marred Sunday’s presidential election, which is expected to return the presidency to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest promising jobs for poor Haitians but who opponents say will install a dictatorship.
So few people turned out in the capital that officials closed voting stations early in Cite Soleil, a slum stronghold of Aristide, and had sent away ballot boxes before polls were due to close.
Even a radio message from Aristide failed to mobilize voters. ``After 200 years of political and economic violence, we have decided to choose peace,″ Aristide told listeners.
Despite such words, violence continued: A homemade bomb exploded in a market in the densely populated suburb of Carrefour shortly after polls opened, slightly injuring one man. Another bomb went off near an electoral office outside Port-au-Prince, but caused no injuries. Nine pipe bombs exploded in the capital last week, killing two children.
Aristide blamed the attacks on opponents trying to block the vote. But opposition leaders say the pro-Aristide government of President Rene Preval staged the attacks to explain an expected low voter turnout.
As Aristide arrived to vote at a polling station in Tabarre, where he lives reclusively behind heavily guarded walls, dozens of his supporters greeted him with chants of ``Aristide or death!″
He told them the election was ``a vote for the peace of all Haitians.″
Even before polls closed, there was disagreement about the turnout. Premier Jacques-Edouard Alexis admitted there was a ``timid″ turnout in the capital but claimed Haitians voted en masse in the countryside. Pro-Aristide activist Rene Civile claimed on local television that 70 percent had voted by midday.
That contradicted reports from dozens of reporters in the field and even some electoral officials. Only 5,000 of 200,000 eligible people had voted in the Northwest District eight hours after polling stations opened, local electoral officials said.
All major opposition parties boycotted Sunday’s vote, charging that legislative elections six months ago were rigged to favor Aristide’s candidates and that Haiti is sliding back into dictatorship. Aristide’s opponents in the race, fearful of attacks, have not campaigned.
The apparent low turnout was a dramatic contrast to the ecstatic wave of support that first swept Aristide to power 11 years ago.
Since the 1989 vote, Haitians have become increasingly disenchanted with their floundering democracy, an experiment that has produced an endlessly squabbling tangle of political parties and left many as poor and hungry as ever.
``Whether you vote or not, it doesn’t make any difference,″ said Sauveur Jean-Baptiste, a 70-year-old plumber. ``The people we are voting for are nothing but fat cats.″
Those who did vote appeared to favor Aristide over six unknown rivals. Dozens interviewed across the country said they had voted for Aristide, although there was little passion about a choice that seemed inevitable.
His campaign promises included a far-fetched pledge to create half a million jobs in Haiti, where only one in three workers is employed and most people are preoccupied with the daily struggle to find food.
``We’re going to have a better life. The cost of living is going to get lower. We will have security,″ said Jesumene Duvelglas, an unemployed mother of three in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil who voted for Aristide.
Polls were to close at 6 p.m. and the earliest partial results were expected Monday.
Aristide, Haiti’s first freely elected president, was toppled in a 1991 military coup and restored to power after a U.S.-led invasion in 1994. Because the constitution does not allow consecutive terms in office, he stepped down reluctantly in 1996, making way for Haiti’s first democratic handover of power in its 200-year history.
The opposition has accused Aristide and his hand-picked successor, Preval, of planning his eventual return ever since.
``This is not an election, it’s a consecration _ one that will bring Haiti an illegitimate president who will set up an illegitimate government,″ charged Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a peasant leader and former Aristide ally who went into hiding after an alleged assassination attempt this month.
Nine senators also were to be elected Sunday, and Aristide’s Lavalas Family party was expected to make a clean sweep.
The only international monitors were a 25-member team from Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights group, and a four-member mission from the Caribbean Community trade bloc.
Haiti’s history has long been darkened by dictatorships. Successive revolutions, each with its autocratic leaders, plagued the country after its independence from France in 1804.
Beginning in 1957, Francois ``Papa Doc″ Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude ``Baby Doc″ ruled the country by terror. There were efforts toward democracy after Jean-Claude fled to France in 1986, but they collapsed when the military staged a coup against the popularly elected Aristide and began four years of bloody rule.
The United States sent in 20,000 troops to restore democratic government in 1994.