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Tuesday, 9 May, 2000, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Haiti goes to the polls
Slum dwellers
Poorest country in western hemisphere
By Peter Greste in Port au Prince

Haitians are preparing to go to the polls on the 21 May, for a parliamentary election that observers say will be critical to both the country's future and regional stability.

The vote is aimed at ending a political crisis that has crippled the Haitian parliament for almost a year and a half.

It's not just the opposition that's been the target of violence - we've all been victims

Prime Minister Jacques Alexis
In January last year, President Rene Preval suspended the entire congress and two thirds of the senate in a dispute with the opposition. Since then he has ruled by decree.

The election is expected to fill all those federal vacancies, as well as almost 7,000 other jobs across the country in five layers of government.

'Atmosphere of terror'

But there are serious doubts about whether the election will achieve its aims, or even if it will take place at all.

Ballot papers
Ballot papers will shortly come out of storage
The Provisional Electoral Council which is in charge of organising the elections has warned that if the current level of political violence continues, it will have to consider rescheduling the vote for the fourth time.

"If in the coming days popular organisations continue to promote violence, to destroy the cars of honest citizens, if fires continue to destroy property ... the elections, intended to change the economic and social situation of the nation, will not take place," Leon Manus, president of the Provisional Electoral Council, told a meeting with political parties.

The opposition too has warned that it will pull out in the final week unless attacks on its members stop.

Micha Gaillard, of the five-party opposition coalition, Espace du Concertation, said street thugs linked to the ruling Family Lavalas party have been creating an atmosphere of terror in the lead up to elections, to try to reduce the voter turnout and make it easier to rig the vote

"We all know who these thugs are, and their numbers are small," Gaillard said.

"All the government has to do is arrest them and bring some order back to the streets, and we can continue with a peaceful, democratic election. But we won't take part in a flawed and violent election," he added.

Victims of violence

Throughout April, at least eleven political figures were murdered, ten of them linked to the opposition. An unidentified group abducted another opposition candidate Clody Myrthil, beating him and holding him captive for two weeks, before dumping him in a corn field beside a hole that he believed would become his grave.

Opposition leader Evan Paul stands amid his burned out offices
Opposition leader Evan Paul stands amid his burned out offices
And another group of attackers claiming to support Family Lavalas torched the headquarters of the opposition United Democratic Convention several weeks ago. But the government had denied any complicity in the violence.

"It's not just the opposition that's been the target of violence - we've all been victims," the Prime Minister Jacques Alexis told the BBC.

"The opposition has to realise that its up to all of us to use our influence in the community to encourage peace and stability. They can't just blame the government."

Even so, the opposition is convinced it's all part of a plan by the president to push the parliamentary election back to November, to coincide with a presidential election.

Either violence in the lead up to the vote will force its cancellation, or fighting between the winners and losers of the first round of polling will stop the second round from ever taking place, they say.

Political analysts believe that if the parliamentary and presidential elections are held together, supporters of the Family Lavalas's presidential candidate Jean Bertrand Aristide will be able to ride his coat-tails to victory. He is easily the most popular politician in Haiti, and is expected to win the presidency easily.

Slum dweller
Anite says democracy has left them worse than ever
Whatever the outcome of the political struggle, Haiti needs a resolution fast. The country is already the poorest in the western hemisphere, with some 80% of the population living on or below the poverty line.

The lack of a functioning parliament has left the country without any meaningful services, and the economy is in its deepest recession in a decade.

Warning of new exodus

The dismal state of the economy, combined with the political violence has prompted Director of Haiti's National Migration Office Carol Joseph to warn of a renewed exodus of boat people trying to reach the Bahamas and the United States.

"First there is drought in the north, second if elections aren't held as anticipated, international aid will be held up and the economic situation will worsen," he said.

On the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince, the mood is depressed.

"We thought the democratic revolution of 1994 [to end the dictatorships] would see our lives improve," said 30-year-old unemployed mother of two Anite Jean.

"But what has democracy done for us? Now it seems the days of Papa Doc (Duvalier) were not so bad after all. If I had the money to pay the smugglers, I and my children would be on the first boat out of here."

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06 Apr 00 | Americas
UN Haiti mission in peril
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