News from Haiti

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Haiti to hold crucial vote amid fear of violence

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters), Wed 19 Apr 2006,By Joseph Guyler Delva - Amid fears of political violence, Haiti prepares to vote in legislative elections that will determine if President-elect Rene Preval has enough support to govern the poorest country in the Americas.

The parliamentary run-off election will determine whether Preval will have an ally in the Caribbean country's next prime minister, who will be picked by parliament.

Authorities, analysts and the wealthy elite who lost when Preval, a champion of the poor, won a February 7 presidential election consider Friday's ballot crucial as Haiti tries to return to stability after the ouster two years ago of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

But many ordinary Haitians seem unaware of the stakes, and there are signs turnout could be low. Preval, who will be sworn in on May 14, urged supporters to turn out in force.

"Without support from parliament, there is not much a president can do," Preval said.

Debate between candidates and parties has become fierce at the local level since Preval's first-round victory under the banner of his political platform "Lespwa," Creole for Hope.

Two candidates from rival parties also won first-round victories in races for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. That leaves 97 seats in the Chamber and all 30 Senate seats up for grabs in the April 21 runoff.

Under Haiti's constitution, the party holding at least half the seats of parliament will pick the prime minister.

No one party has enough candidates in the runoff to win the required majority.

As chief of government, the prime minister names all public administration functionaries, forms the cabinet, conducts government policies and presides over the National Police High Council, overseeing state security and safety. Parliament can fire him or her through a no-confidence vote.

Preval has been meeting candidates from rival parties to try to persuade them to join his platform, seeking a comfortable majority. A growing number of opponents have engaged in talks to join forces against his party.

Poverty is pervasive in Haiti, where the World Bank estimates annual income at $390 (218 pounds) per person. Coups and corruption have plagued two decades of attempts at democratic government and an unelected interim government has ruled since Aristide was driven out by an armed rebellion in 2004.

A U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti has launched an education campaign that includes radio commercials urging Haiti's 3.5 million registered voters to cast ballots.

But many voters complain that problems encountered in the chaotic first round of the election remain unsolved. They said they will have to walk miles (kilometres) to voting stations.

Police fear angry candidates who have been disqualified from the second round race could try to disrupt the election.

Violence has been reported in several towns, including the burning on Monday of a police station in Maissade, in the Central Plateau, said Haiti's police chief, Mario Andresol.

He said special security measures have been taken in "hot areas." U.N. peacekeepers also announced added security measures for the ballot.

"We know that there are places where angry disqualified candidates and other individuals are planning to disrupt the election," Andresol told Reuters. "We know there is a potential for violence, but the Haitian police and U.N. troops are prepared to quell any violent attack against the election."

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