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Friday, 9 June, 2000, 16:44 GMT 17:44 UK
Haitians yearn for stability
Supporters of Jean-Bertrand Aristide protest against the OAS's contention of vote counting methods
The elections have caused protest as well as optimism
By Peter Greste in Haiti

Hell in the Haitian psyche is a place called Forte Demanche.

It is a long, ugly, squat building tucked in behind a sprawling slum. The wet season has begun in the Caribbean, and the concrete structure is surrounded by a moat of mud.

When it rains, water dribbles down the interior walls, into what used to be some of the country's most feared torture cells.

The Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier, better known as Baby Doc Duvalier, built Fort Demanche as a headquarters for his notoriously ruthless civilian militia, the Macoutes. They used to bring dissenters there for re-education. Locals say several hundred tortured souls now wander the halls of Forte Demanche.

Things have only deteriorated since the arrival of democracy

Voter Anite Jean
But the spirits of the dead are not the only ones there. While the fort was abandoned long ago, now the tiny cubicles are home to dozens of Haitian families with nowhere else to live - people like Anite Jean and her two children who say it was not always this bad.

"Things have only deteriorated since the arrival of democracy," she said.

But ironically, Anite told me she would definitely be voting.

"Where has this democracy got us?" she said. "Things were better under Baby Doc - at least we could eat then.

"But we still have to change this mess somehow, and voting is the only way."

Popular vote

Her opinions are typical. Haiti has been without any effective administration for the past year and a half, since the president Rene Preval sacked the entire congress and two thirds of the senate in a dispute with the opposition. He has been ruling by decree ever since.

Counted ballots spilled out of their sealed bags into the hallway and onto the street

That left Haiti without any meaningful government services, deeply corrupt and ineffective police and a legal system that works like an auction house for verdicts. It also cut off almost $500m in foreign aid when donors refused to hand cash to a country with an autocrat in charge.

And if the tattered government is widely scorned, political parties do not do much better. Just ahead of the elections, there was a series of riots over the political stalemate. Most people believed Preval's party, Family Lavalas, was behind the violence, hoping to keep turnout low on polling day so it would be easier to fiddle the results.

They also believed Family Lavalas was responsible for most of the pre-election political killings which left at least a dozen people dead - 11 of whom were opposition figures.

Political stalemate, violence, corrupt public institutions, a dive-bombing economy - it all left ordinary Haitians bitterly cynical about their political leaders. And yet, electoral officials estimate that 60% of the country's voters actually joined the queues - up from the 5% that elected the last government three years ago.

Why so many this time around? Time and again, those waiting outside the polling stations told me the same thing.

"First we have to fix the government," they said. "Nothing can get better without a proper administration."

'Democracy at work'

That is not to say the election was a model of the democratic process. There were reports of disappearing boxes, intimidation, and ballot-stuffing.

And in one central office I waded waste-deep through counted ballots that had spilled out of their sealed bags into the hallway and onto the street. Men armed with pitch-forks cleared the mess, making a recount impossible.

But while international observers reported that there were a number of serious irregularities, the problems were not bad enough to distort the will of the people. It was an impressive display of democracy at work, to confound every critic who had predicted chaos and blood.

There is still a chance that the violence that has been so much a part of Haiti's history will return to disrupt the second round vote. But there is a clear popular momentum for some kind of political stability.

And it seems that despite the odds and regardless of who ultimately claims victory after the next round, people like Anite Jean may well have been the real winners in this vote to turn Haiti's fortunes around.

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See also:

30 May 00 | Americas
Aristide win predicted in Haiti
22 May 00 | Americas
Haiti poll fraud allegations
06 Apr 00 | Americas
UN Haiti mission in peril
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