Explosive timing

August 01, 2005

IN LESS THAN three months, Haiti is expected to hold local elections leading to parliamentary and presidential elections that are meant to herald the return of democracy to that perpetually troubled Caribbean country and signal yet another example of successful nation-building by the United States.

There's just one hitch: Haiti is no democratic success story. Though an American-supported regime change did topple the former president, since then, Haiti has been racked with kidnappings - more than 450 since March - political killings and rampant street violence. More than a year after Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced into exile, heavily armed partisans of the ousted president and his equally armed opponents are fighting to the death for control, killing innocent civilians in the process. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed interim Haitian government appears more powerless by the day, unwilling or unable to act after having squandered its credibility as an honest peace broker by taking the side of Aristide opponents.

This sorry state of affairs makes the prospect for safe, free and fair elections highly unlikely, and gives resonance to the growing calls for postponement of the elections. Although the United States, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations are now providing financial and technical assistance with voter registration, the help came slowly and was hampered by disagreements between the OAS and the United Nations over procedural and jurisdictional issues, and by infighting among members of the Haitian Provisional Electoral Council.

If the interim government does manage to pull off national elections scheduled for Nov. 15, there may not be enough voter participation to make it credible. Voter registration began June 9 and ends Aug. 9, yet only 571,000 of 4.5 million eligible voters were registered by July 21. There are at least 100 political parties, but many have been prevented from registering until they can demonstrate that their membership rolls consist of at least 5,000 people. These unnecessarily restrictive rules of the electoral council also require the parties to have at least 40,000 registered voters to qualify for public campaign funds. As a result, most candidates cannot afford to campaign.

Because of the country's history of deadly violence at polling places, the Haitian police force could be enlisted to help protect voters, but several officers have been implicated in political murders and the force is now widely viewed as corrupt and partisan.

The Bush administration, which is pushing the Haitian government to stick to the election schedule, should consider whether rushed elections serve either the United States' or Haiti's long-term interests. A country with a degraded physical infrastructure, a discredited judicial system, an ineffective police force, a restless rebel army and a mass of hungry, jobless and dissatisfied people has the potential to implode - even after an election - which would ultimately mean more American and U.N. resources being expended there.

Postponing the elections, or at least extending the registration period, is worthy of consideration. The Bush administration should use its considerable influence with the Haitian government to urge leaders to do the elections right, not just to do them fast.

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