PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- An unexpectedly high number of Haitians, 3.2 million, have registered to vote in today's elections for virtually an entire government. Haiti has never held free elections in its 186-year history.
On Nov. 29, 1987, the last attempt resulted in abject failure. Election Day terrorism throughout the country, including the killing of 29 people at the Rue Valliant polling station in Port-au-Prince, resulted in the cancellation of the election.
The campaign had been marked by the assassination of two presidential candidates, arson of the Electoral Commission building, and numerous attacks on civilians by army and civilian terrorists.
Several changes have made the 1990 electoral process much more successful.
* Eartha Pascal Trouillot has been president of a civilian provisional government since March, following the civil unrest which led to dictator Prosper Avril's departure. Her only stated goal in office was to hold free elections. In 1987, the army government opposed the election.
* The Haitian military has been integrated into the process of providing physical security to candidates and voters. Except for a grenade explosion Dec. 5, which killed seven people, the campaign has been relatively non-violent though there have been complaints of minor skirmishes by supporters of the leading presidential candidates, the Rev. Jean Bertrand Aristide and Marc Louis Bazin.
Under instructions from the army, large rallies have been effectively banned since the explosion. Mr. Bazin has continued holding low key marches through towns, and Father Aristide presided over a memorial service for the victims of the explosion Thursday that was publicized on radio throughout the country. Father Aristide's followers defied the ban Friday and held a large rally in Port-au-Prince's central plaza.
Father Aristide is generally regarded as the favorite, though observers disagree over the extent of his support in the countryside, where most people live. If no candidate receives a majority, there will be a run-off between the top two candidates in January.
Father Aristide is absolutely confident of victory. Last week, he said, "I could go to sleep two weeks before the election and still win." He promised to resign as a priest if the Vatican so requests.
Observers credit Chief of Staff Herard Abraham with reorienting the armed forces in support of the electoral process. Still, there are certain military sectors, notably those soldiers based in the Dessalines barracks near the presidential palace, who are said by diplomats to oppose the elections.
Sixty-two United Nations military observers have been unable to meet with officers in those barracks, historically the most powerful and corrupt of the armed forces.
These U.N. military officers and foreign civilian observers have been cited as a moderating influence. They include more than 200 employees of the United Nations, more than 200 volunteers supervised by the Organization of American States and the affiliated Caribbean Community organization, as well as 100 observers from the Association of Freely Elected Heads of State led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
All of the leaders of the observer delegations, such as OAS Secretary General Joao Baena Soares and Mr. Carter, have expressed cautious optimism about the conduct of the vote.
In private, however, many expressed skepticism that the army and remnants of the Tonton Macoutes security force would allow an elected government to govern for very long after all the foreign observers have gone home.
The new government is scheduled to take office Feb. 7, the fifth anniversary of the departure of ousted President-for-life Jean Claude Duvalier.
Some observers, such as leading human rights activist Jean Jacques Honorat, regard today's local elections as just as significant as those for national office. Political power traditionally has been vested in the military office of section chief, who acts as sheriff, judge, police chief and, unofficially, as purveyor of corruption and terror.
The new local offices would establish civilian authority over these legal and police functions. The 1987 vote was not meant to create local government. Some fear that there could be violence this time in rural areas, where most foreign observers will not be.
The Haitian Constitution calls for a French-type political system with power shared between the president and a prime minister, to be appointed by the president from the majority coalition in Congress.
While Father Aristide is favored to win the presidency, his party, the National Front for Change and Democracy, is only fielding candidates for about half the senatorial and deputy seats in the legislature. Unless his party can form a coalition with one of his rivals, probably either the party of Louis Dejoie II or Hubert de Ronceray, the prime minister will come from Mr. Bazin's alliance of three parties.