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Haitians Ready to Vote in Long Delayed Election


Haitians head to the polls Tuesday in what will be the first democratic elections since former-president Jean Bertrand Aristide fled the country after a violent uprising two years ago. In the past few days, hundreds of election observers from around the world have arrived in Haiti to watch the vote.

Haitian presidential candidates ended their campaigning Sunday, as U.N. workers and international observers made final preparations for Tuesday's vote.

Gerardo Le Chevalier, the Chief Election Officer at the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, says that after postponing the election four times due to logistical problems, the country is ready for elections.

"They have to return to legitimacy, they have to have legit authorities, and the only way to have them is to elect them," he said. "Once you have legitimate authorities, you will have a process that will bring this country back to normality and to governability, and that is the way it happens all over the planet."

Le Chevalier says the government was successful in getting 90 percent of eligible people to register for their voter identity card. But, he does not know how many people will actually vote.

"Now comes the second part of it," he continued. "If these people who registered with enthusiasm go to vote with enthusiasm, I do not know. That is the problem of the candidates - if you do not have good candidates, it is like if you do not have good teams, people do not go to the stadium to watch bad teams play."

There are 33 candidates for president.

The front-runner is former-president Rene Preval, who served from 1995-2000. Preval is one of the few Haitian presidents to have served out his term without being overthrown. Other popular candidates include former opposition leader Charles Baker, and former president Leslie Manigat.

It is unlikely that any one candidate will receive the minimum 50-percent of the votes to win the presidency, so a run-off election is expected next month.

Scores of international observers have arrived in Haiti. Program Director Chris Hennemeyer, of IFES, a democracy-building organization in Washington D.C., is leading a group of 24 international volunteers who will be stationed at polling sites in Haiti's major cities.

"There are a lot of international observers, around 250 internationals, plus 36,000 domestic observers, this will be a very closely watched election," commented Hennemeyer.

Local election monitor Karinne Clermont says Haitian elections are usually marred by violence and voting irregularities. She remembers Haiti's last elections in 2000, when ballots were found thrown in the street the day after elections.

She says she hopes the large international presence will keep the vote free and fair this year. But she says, it will not be easy to transition out of the past 20 years of violence and instability.

"I am not going to lie to myself," said Clermont. "We are in a very fragile situation, that can explode at any moment."

Many Haitians, like Gema George, a computer technician in Port-au-Prince, see this vote as an important step in stabilizing the country.

"If we choose someone who is serious, and competent - if we all take part in this, then we can see a positive change in this country," said George. "I think it is our obligation to go out and vote, and participate in this election."

She says she sees this as a time for change.

Gema George says she hopes that in 10 years, Haiti will not have so much insecurity and suffering, where kids are dying of hunger, or are shooting guns and kidnapping people. She says she hopes they can open more schools and universities, and offer something here that will stop all those people from leaving and going to the United States and Canada.