Haiti prepares for fall elections
Dozens of political parties on Thursday discussed obstacles to crucial elections to fill a power vacuum left by the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who dominated Haitian politics for 15 years.
Aristide's party, Lavalas, took a hard line, telling delegates it would participate only if the former leader is allowed to return from exile in South Africa to serve out a term that would have expired in February 2006.
But Lavalas itself is split between those who believe the sole leader is Aristide and those who think it's time to move on — a year after the former slum priest fled the country.
"There's a power struggle," former Sen. Gerard Gilles acknowledged before the conference.
Other delegates said it was important to have participation from Lavalas, still the strongest political force based on support from Haiti's impoverished majority.
"If we don't get an agreement with Lavalas, we could have major (security) problems during the elections," said Luc Mesadieu, president of the Christian Movement for a New Haiti party.
He said Aristide should designate someone else to run for president.
Representatives from 16 of nearly 100 registered political parties are to address the three-day meeting. Some are too new to garner support from Haiti's 8 million people.
"Not everybody can be president," said Prince Pierre Sonson, of the Democratic Haitian Reform Movement party. "You are surely going to see some large political coalitions."
Individual candidates register in August, a few months before local elections scheduled Oct. 9, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections Nov. 13.
Many large challenges lay ahead for Haiti.
In a report released Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said security remains precarious and "the possibility of outbreaks of violence cannot be ruled out."
Armed ex-soldiers and street gangs who helped overthrow Aristide still control parts of the country, raising fears they might try to sway the elections. Violence has killed more than 400 people in Port-au-Prince since September, when Aristide supporters intensified calls for his return.
"Our main obstacle right now is insecurity around the capital," said Rosemond Pradel, a spokesman for the Provisional Electoral Council. "It could derail registration" supposed to start next month.
Soldiers aborted Haiti's first attempt at a free election in a bloodbath in 1987. The only vote not tainted by fraud and miscounts was the 1989 balloting that brought Aristide to power on a wave of popular support.
Aristide won the 2000 election, but fewer than 5 percent of the people voted.
Guy Philippe, a former rebel leader who helped oust Aristide and then founded the Front for National Reconstruction, said worries about violence are exaggerated.
"Both Afghanistan and Iraq recently had elections, and we don't have one-tenth of the violence," Philippe said. "Elections are the only way to solve the total chaos here."
Aristide was toppled Feb. 29, 2004, after a three-week revolt started by a street gang and joined by ex-soldiers who had ousted him in 1991. Aristide disbanded the army in 1995, shortly after U.S. troops restored him to power.
Officials from the interim government and the 7,400-member U.N. peacekeeping force say elections will require much more money.
So far, Canada, the United States, Haiti and the United Nations have earmarked $26 million, while the European Union has pledged an additional $12 million.
At least another $20 million is needed for computers, 150 generators to combat chronic power outages, and an extra 3,000 troops to guard about 500 polling places, said U.N. elections officer Gerardo Le Chevallier.
Despite the challenges, many political groups say elections will give Haiti a chance to end a cycle of violence and get more people involved in politics.
The Haitian Conference of Women Leaders, created last summer, is soliciting funds from private citizens in the United States and Europe to help finance campaigns of female candidates.
The organization is pushing for women to make up 30 percent of candidates, compared with 2 percent in the 2000 parliamentary elections, said adviser Kellty Julien.
"If women want things changed, we can't simply sit back and hope men will do it," she said.