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Haiti's Democracy on Hold - 2001-09-05

Haiti's fledgling democracy is on hold. At issue are last year's legislative elections, in which international observers accused election officials of improperly tabulating votes in ten Senate races, thereby granting outright victory to Haiti's ruling party. Efforts to resolve the matter are at a stalemate, while most foreign aid to Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, remains on hold.

Micha Gaillard is a spokesman for the Democratic Convergence, a 15-party opposition umbrella group. The Convergence accuses the ruling Lavalas party of using fraud and intimidation to sweep legislative elections in May of 2000. To protest, it boycotted presidential elections last November that returned President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

Mr. Gaillard says both the legislative and presidential elections were a farse. But while the Organization of American States has objected to just ten senate races where observers documented serious irregularities, Mr. Gaillard has a more sweeping outlook - and an ambitious proposal.

"Today, it is not a question of a few seats in the Senate, it is whether we redo elections for the entire legislature," Mr. Gaillard says. He says negotiations have reached a point where the opposition would be willing to accept the results of the November 26 presidential election - if, in return, new elections are held for the entire parliament.

Lavalas officials openly scoff at the opposition proposal. Senator Gerald Gilles represents one of Haiti's southern districts, Grande-Anse, and is a member of the team Lavalas set up to negotiate with the Convergence. He says the government has already taken action to satisfy the concerns of the international community - but may never be able to satisfy the oposition.

Senator Gilles says several senators have already been dismissed, and the terms of all legislators have been shortened to two years. But, he says, the Convergence still wants more and is engaging in acts of provocation to get its way. The senator says Lavalas wants to negotiate - but will not talk about the November presidential vote or the legislators whose victory at the polls was never in doubt.

Talks between Lavalas and the opposition have been suspended repeatedly, amid arrests of Convergence leaders and Lavalas accusations that the umbrella group is plotting a coup against the government.

Convergence spokesman Micha Gaillard says the government has no desire to negotiate with the opposition - but is making a concerted effort to appear otherwise.

Mr. Gaillard asks rhetorically, what does Jean-Bertrand Aristide want? He says Mr. Aristide wants an agreement with the Convergence that he can show to the international community so that it will release foreign aid. He says the government needs a certificate of legitimacy to get the funds it wants - even as it maintains a brutal dictatorship.

Mr. Gaillard says he fears for his life everyday. He claims opposition members face persecution that is tolerated - if not orchestrated - by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, adding that if the president wanted the repression to stop, it would cease instantly.

Once again, Lavalas Senator Gerald Gilles dismisses Mr. Gaillard's assertion.

Mr. Gilles says there is a cycle of provocation that the opposition is encouraging to bait the government. He says all Haitians can speak freely against the government if they wish to do so. Haiti has a free press, not a dictatorship, he added.

While Lavalas lieutenants and opposition leaders engage in a war of words, the government itself is attempting to appear "above the fray." But even President Aristide's Minister for External Cooperation, Marc Bazin, cannot resist suggesting that the Convergence's quest to redo last year's legislative elections is flawed.

" The issue before us goes beyond the electoral conflict [arising from] the May 21 elections," Mr. Bazil says. " I believe that elections have not yet been internalized by the Haitian political class as a way to settle political conflicts. And as long as we keep thinking that one election is going to solve the problems raised by the previous election, we will make mistake after mistake. There has to be a point where everybody understands that, if things continue to unravel at this pace, we will only have losers. There will be no winners."

Indeed, Haiti has lost more than half a billion dollars in foreign aid in recent years as the country lurches from one political crisis to the next.