(IPS) PORT-AU-PRINCE -- For over a year now, Haitian political parties, UN officials and foreign consultants armed with plans, charts and millions upon millions of dollars have been planning for Haiti's general elections.
But just seven months away from races for over 1,000 posts, elections don't yet have the feel of a certainty.
One of the most vocal parties -- Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas Family -- is still on the sidelines and its supporters, sometimes thousands of them, hold demonstrations to denounce the planned contests.
Not that their anger surprises anyone. Aristide was ousted on Feb. 29, 2004, after a bitter two-year anti-government movement and a brief armed insurgency, both of which had U.S. encouragement.
Hours after Aristide left on a U.S. plane, his country was being occupied by a U.S.-led multinational force. The former priest and two-time president says he was kidnapped in a U.S. and French government-supported "modern-day coup d'etat."
Added to the Lavalas conundrum, the Provisional Electional Council (CEP) has to photograph, fingerprint and register 4.2 million voters in only three months.
And most concerning of all, the security situation appears to be going from bad to worse, at least in the capital, with gang warfare, attacks on police and UN peacekeepers, murders, kidnappings and even assaults on the CEP headquarters.
On Mar. 29, two truckloads of men armed with automatic weapons opened fire on the compound, pocking the building and piercing an electricity transformer. Three days earlier someone lobbed a grenade at the door.
The national elections slated for Oct. 9 and Nov. 16 -- for every office from local mayor up through president -- have been touted as a key part of an internationally shepherded plan aimed at helping the country gain some semblance of stability.
Pulling off the races is the main task facing the caretaker government installed after Aristide left. The U.S., Canada and the European Union have pledged close to 40 million dollars to fund the polls and the Organization of American States has dedicated a phalanx of specialized staff.
"Elections are the only way to assure the country moves forward," interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said again on Mar. 31, during a visit to the CEP one day after the attack.
Elections are also the first priority of the Brazilian-led UN peacekeeping mission that landed here nine months ago. The 7,400 soldiers and police are to "provide a secure and stable environment within which the constitutional and political process in Haiti can take place."
But as members of the country's 91 political parties scurry around trying to rouse a disinterested and even suspicious electorate, Lavalas is crying foul.
"As long as Aristide isn't back in Haiti, there won't be any elections," John Joel Joseph, a member of the Cite Soleil Lavalas political committee, told IPS on Apr. 1. "If they want to do a 'selection' of one of the mercenaries who work for the imperialists, fine, but you can't call that elections."
During the previous two days, several thousand Aristide supporters had marched through the streets of his sprawling seaside slum and also through Bel-Aire, a poor neighborhood overlooking Haiti's National Palace, to call for Aristide's return.
Those neighborhoods have also been the scenes of vicious battles between rival gangs and between police and gang members claiming allegiance to Lavalas. The violence has left over 400 dead since its eruption on Sept. 30, 2004.
"No Aristide, no peace! Aristide for five years!" the jubilant marchers chanted on Mar. 29 as they circled a bonfire with symbolic coffins for U.S. President George Bush, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James B. Foley and a host of Haitian officials.
An effigy of Latortue blazed in the center.
But not all Lavalas Family party members want to sit this one out.
Senator Gerald Gilles, who is still a senator but who has been without a salary since the interim government closed parliament last year, is planning to run.
"There's a divergence in Lavalas right now," Gilles told IPS. "One tendency does not want to participate, or it does but will not admit it, and the other, the more moderate tendency, does. If we do not find unity amongst ourselves, Lavalas could disappear." [See sidebar for more on Lavalas]
But Gilles also noted that for the moment he has to move around the country carefully. He and other members of his party feel they are being unfairly persecuted by the interim government.
Several high-ranking party members, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, are in prison on charges related to repression but have yet to be tried. Many other Lavalas supporters whom police say are gang members have been picked up but not yet charged. Gilles himself was arrested and briefly held.
The senator also admitted that campaigning is not possible in neighborhoods dominated by what he calls pro-Aristide "extremists."
"No intelligent person would hold a public meeting in Cite Soleil or Bel-Aire," he said.
Members of the CEP say they have tried to get the Lavalas Family to participate in the elections, and are holding out hope that they will.
"I am committed to making sure that all the political forces in Haiti get equitable treatment," CEP member and businessman Patrick Fequire told IPS.
But Fequire's concerns are not limited to Lavalas. Before candidates can even officially get on a ballot, the CEP needs to register all of Haiti's voters using a new -- and what they say will be the country's first fraud-proof -- elections system.
Starting some time this month, all of Haiti's voting age population -- 4.2 million people -- will be invited to one of 424 registration offices where they will have to prove their identity and then be photographed and fingerprinted.
If an adult does not have a driver's license or birth certificate or similar paper, they have to come with two people who are already registered and who will vouch for him or her. Once everyone has registered, identities and fingerprints will be cross-checked in the capital and then the cards will be distributed across the country.
All in three months.
"We will have 610 computers," CEP member Pierre Richard Duchemin explained to an audience of party representatives at a meeting last week.
Then, with a Power Point slide show, he illustrated that if each registration takes between 10 and 16 minutes at 610 computers across the nation, there will be about 61,000 new registrations a day.
A challenge, to say the least, in a country with scant electricity and poor roads, and where hundreds of thousands of people have no birth certificates.
But that is not what is worrying Fequire. He is more concerned about the insecurity, and not just for the elections.
"I don't think the CEP is in more danger than the average business person sitting behind his desk," he said. "The entire country is hostage."
While visiting the CEP last week, Latortue did not hide his frustration with the UN peacekeeping mission.
"The international community is officially in Haiti to help us," he said, "but we don't always find them where we need them."
A joint study by Harvard Law School students and a Brazilian human rights group agreed.
The blue helmets have "done little to establish stability, protect the populace or curb human rights violations," they said. "Haiti is as insecure as ever."
Fequire went further.
"The UN says elections are the priority," he ruminated. "But I wonder about elections in this kind of situation. In a climate like this, is elections what we need? Will that kind of elections resolve our problems? It's not obvious to me."
April 7, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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