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Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 06:55 GMT
Aristide supporters celebrate
The party goes on, but the results are unofficial
By Central America correspondent Peter Greste

Twenty-four hours after the last voters cast their ballots in Haiti's presidential elections, the supporters of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide were still celebrating.

Jean Bertrand Aristide: "Haiti's glass is half full"
They have been waiting a long time for the return of their hero.

Mr Aristide stepped down from the presidency five years ago, because the constitution prevented him from taking a second term in office.

But the celebrations continued even though there had been no official confirmation of his victory.

Electoral council officials said it could take some days before even preliminary results are known because of the complicated logistics of bringing the ballots in from some of the more remote corners of Haiti.

This wasn't an election. This was a nomination

Opposition leader Evans Paul
Even so, nobody doubts that Mr Aristide will be the country's next president.

He is easily the most popular politician in Haiti, and independent observers said he could take as much as 80% of the ballots.

But that is partly because Mr Aristide entered the election virtually unopposed.

All the main opposition parties boycotted the election, accusing the ruling party, Family Lavalas, of using electoral fraud, violence and intimidation to hold on to power. Of the three other relatively unknown candidates, none even bothered to campaign.

Turnout dispute

"This wasn't an election," said opposition leader Evans Paul. "This was a nomination."

The main dispute now centres on the turnout for the election. Mr Aristide desperately wanted large numbers at the polls to give the vote legitimacy, and the electoral council has already said that some 62% of eligible Haitians took part.

But diplomats and the local and foreign media said the real figures were far lower, possibly between 20 and 30%.

According to some diplomats that indicates a significant lack of genuine support for the former priest from the slums.

Heavily armed police made sure the election passed peacefully
But in his first news conference since the election, Mr Aristide insisted that the democratic process had taken its course.

"The huge majority of the Haitian people expressed their right through their votes,. Those from the opposition who said 'no' to the elections were free to do it, and we respect that," he said.

One of his key priorities will be to re-open lines of credit with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, and the country desperately needs all the financial help it can get.

But all the major donors, including the US, the UN, France and Canada, have all frozen direct aid to the Haitian Government and blocked development loans. They insist that money will remain locked up until Haiti corrects flaws from elections earlier this year.

'Open to dialogue'

And in a statement released on Monday, the US State Department said it was keen to continue working with the Haitian people, pointedly avoiding any mention of the Haitian government.

Diplomatic sources said that means Mr Aristide can forget about getting any access to World Bank loans for at least the next six months.

"We are always open to dialogue within a framework of mutual respect," Mr Aristide said.

"And I'm convinced we will soon have an opportunity to address economic issues with the international community."

Economic analysts like Kesner Pharel believe that unless Haiti gets the money it needs soon, the new government could well collapse sooner rather than later.

"Haitian politicians have always campaigned on national pride," he said. "But when the people realise that national pride won't fill their bellies, they will run out of patience. That money is important if we are to avoid another serious economic and political collapse."

It was a point that many Haitians freely acknowledged.

"I'm voting for Aristide," said one man who went to the polls early.

"That's because I think he's the best man to lead Haiti out of this mess. But I'll let him finish his five-year term, and if things don't get much better, then we'll have to get rid of him. Haiti can't go on like this forever."

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See also:

23 Nov 00 | Americas
Violence ahead of Haiti polls
19 Oct 00 | Americas
Haiti government foils 'coup plot'
14 Jul 00 | Americas
Aid threat to Haiti
09 Jun 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Haitians yearn for stability
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