Two Steps Forward in Haiti

June 27, 1995

The election in Haiti Sunday was a triumph for democracy -- in that it was held at all, and was carried off without significant violence.

But it was also a grievous setback for democracy -- in that voting never opened in seven of the 133 jurisdictions, with reports rife of missing ballots, closure of precincts and voter confusion. Fortunately, some precincts opened again yesterday, and the July 23 run-off can rectify remaining problems.

This was Haiti's second free election, its first since Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency in December 1990. He took office in February 1991, only to be deposed by the army Sept. 30. Mr. Aristide returned to power last October, thanks to some 20,000 U.S. troops. He has been preparing this election since then.

The voting was for everything except president -- 2,195 separate local elections for the two legislative houses and for local governments. While ostensibly pro-Aristide candidates must be considered favorites, there were more of them than offices, at odds with each other, and also conservative candidates openly opposed to him.

At best, the results won't be known for another week. Small wonder. Haiti is a country without effective media, without institutions, without ways to get the message across outside of the capital of Port-au-Prince. There were heart-rending stories of people walking miles to cast their ballots in order to build their country, yet confused as to what or whom they were voting about.

This exercise was not only to staff the government with officials legitimately chosen by the governed. It is also a prelude to the election in December, which poor and illiterate rural voters will understand with greater clarity, for president.

Mr. Aristide has pledged to respect the constitution and not seek re-election, even though he was denied much of his term. As Haiti's most respected political figure, his endorsement is likely to be decisive. He will be eligible again in 2000.

Judging Sunday's exercise is like trying to decide whether the bottle was half-full or half-empty. There were great deficiencies, which is hardly surprising in a country held together by 6,000 United Nations troops (2,400 of them American) and 900 foreign police, and with no tradition of law or orderly transition. But there is no sign of a conspiracy, either pro- or anti-Aristide, to fix the results. The failures are not failures of intent.

Haiti is still lurching forward. Haitians should get the hang of this yet.

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