Votes are being counted in Haiti from Tuesday's presidential election, and early unofficial returns indicate former President Rene Preval has a commanding lead over his 32 rivals. If he wins more than 50 percent of the vote, he will be elected president. If not, there will be runoff election in March. The election took place against a backdrop of political turmoil and violence that has existed for more than two years, and which contributed to the ouster of populist President Jean Bertrand Aristide in February 2004.
Haitians have gone two years without a democratically elected president, ever since President Jean Bertrand Aristide stepped down in the face of an armed uprising, and was flown into exile by the United States.
Aristide, a charismatic former priest, has been the dominant figure in Haiti's political life for more than 15 years and his legacy was present in the minds of many voters Tuesday.
Elected in 1990, Aristide was overthrown in 1991 after less than a year in office by the now-disbanded Haitian military. But he was returned to power by U.S. troops in 1994 and served out his term. He was elected again in 2000, but his rule was marred by corruption and violence and growing tension between his government and Haiti's minority elite.
Aristide remains popular among many poor Haitians and on Tuesday many voters said they cast their ballots for former President Rene Preval, because they viewed him as the ousted leader's protégé and a champion of the poor. Preval was Aristide's prime minister in his first, truncated government, then was elected president and governed Haiti between 1996 to 2000.
However, Robert Maguire of Trinity University in Washington says Preval appears to have put some distance between himself and Aristide. "There's no doubt that Preval and Aristide were very, very close, in fact they were called the Twins. And Preval was Aristide's prime minister in 1991 when Aristide was elected and stuck with him throughout. But they are not twins anymore. I think Mr. Preval has distanced himself both personally and politically from Aristide largely on the account of the fact that when Preval was president he had a difficult time governing because of Aristide's presence as a kind of a power behind the throne in Haiti, and I think he chafed at that becaue he did have his own ideas, he did have his own program and it was very hard to pursue that," he said.
According to reports, many voters believe if Preval is elected, he would allow the exiled former president to return. But Haitian ambassador Raymond Joseph says this would be a mistake. "If Aristide were to come back, then I would expect the same cycle of violence and problems that he installed in Haiti over the past 15 years," he said.
Yet Professor Maguire notes Preval has not been vocal about calling for Aristide's return. "Preval was not among those who were calling for the restoration or return of Aristide after February 29, 2004 when Aristide was taken out of the country, or left the country, however you want to interpret it, Preval, in the meantime, has not been in the forefront of calling for Aristide to come back," he said.
Tuesday's vote is the latest chapter in Haiti's struggle to emerge from poverty and destitution. It is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where life expectancy is only about 50 years.
Haiti's interim government, led by technocrat Gerard Latortue, has been faulted for its inability to improve conditions. Also, the U.N. peacekeeping force led by Brazil, that was deployed in 2004, has failed to stop rampant violence.
Ambassador Joseph says the situation would have been different if the United States had maintained a troop presence in Haiti after Aristide's departure. At the same time, he discounts the idea that Haiti is a failed state. "A failed state is a big word. They're still delivering the services not as well as they should because they don't have the resources. Throughout the country, kids are going to school. It's not like the Sudan. You don't hear killing all over the place," he said.
Haiti expert Maguire says while Haiti may not be a failed state, it is in danger of collapsing if it does not get enlightened leadership. "I think if you look at the environment, you look at the economy, you look at the institutions, it's a state that is almost collapsing on itself. Haiti doesn't have to be a collapsed state, it doesn't have to be a failed state. But I think what it needs is leadership that will remove itself from its short-term interests and create reconciliation, dialogue and inclusion of all Haitian people to move forward, then it's going to get off of that precipice of collapse," he said.
This will be the challenge facing Preval or whoever emerges victorious from Haiti's presidential election.