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Voter Registration Closes as Haiti Prepares for Presidential Elections


Voter registration for Haiti's national elections officially ends today, bringing the country one step closer to electing a new president. But the registration process has been plagued by political and logistical problems, and some fear this may compromise the democratic process.

Haitian officials and U.N. workers are preparing for the first elections since the fall of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide.

The preparations have been marred by massive obstacles, from bad roads and no electricity, to illiteracy and political violence. Registering voters has been difficult, particularly in remote rural areas.

While registration started in April, by July many registration centers in the countryside were still not open. Only 2.3 million voters have registered, which is less than half of all eligible voters.

The Provisional Electoral Council, known by its French acronym CEP, has led the operations and has had to extend the voter registration deadline at least twice, due to low turnout.

CEP spokesman Stephane Lacroix says poor infrastructure has been one of the biggest problems.

"For a country like Haiti, there are problems of communications and bad roads. We have seen these images of U.N. officials with solar panels going from village to village because they did not have electricity. It has not been easy," Mr. Lacroix says. "But there is a will, to bring services everywhere. The reproach we have had is an absence in certain communities. But we are doing our best to deploy our resources to reach everyone, by mobile units."

But others say the pattern of voter registration may be politically motivated, to skew the outcome of elections. A recent report by the International Crisis Group, says that the interim government has persecuted Mr. Aristide's Lavalas Party and its supporters. The non-governmental conflict resolution organization's report says this could compromise elections. Other critics point out that the seaside slum of Cite Soleil, known for its Lavalas Party support, has no registration center, while upscale neighborhoods that do not support Lavalas have multiple centers.

While scores of newly formed political parties registered their candidates, Lavalas may not even participate.

For months, Lavalas threatened to boycott the elections. Then in August, the party announced its choice for candidate was Father Gerard Jean Juste. But the CEP barred his registration, saying all candidates must appear to register in person.

Father Jean Juste could not show up to register, because he is being held in jail without charges. Police say he is under investigation for the death of Haitian journalist Jacques Roche.

Lavalas says the CEP's move is politically motivated. Lavalas is the only party with proven support among Haiti's destitute majority, making it the party most likely to claim the 50-percent majority needed to win.

For those who register to vote, choosing a candidate will be its own challenge. Fifty-four presidential contenders stepped forward, including a former president, the leader of a failed coup, and a Haitian born U.S. businessman.

The political campaigns are set to start next month.

But many Haitians, like computer student Jules Bena, are watching the elections unfold with a mixture of skepticism and apathy.

"We are really in doubt about the elections that are about to happen. The election cards are not here yet, the registering process is not complete - we are just going to wait and see," Mr. Bena says.

Jules has registered to vote, but he has not received his voter identity card. But he says it does not really matter, because he probably will not vote anyway. The democratic process has never been respected before in Haiti, he says, so why should it start now?

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