A new start

February 12, 2006

Haitians lined up by the thousands last week at polling stations throughout their troubled country and made a statement that caught many observers, including Haitians themselves, by surprise. Despite two years of political uncertainty and economic instability, four canceled elections and widespread violence and despair, they made clear that they want and believe in democracy.

To make this point, more than 50 percent of courageous eligible voters set aside legitimate fears of election-day bloodshed and waited for hours at polling places caught unprepared for the crowds. Once in office, Rene Preval, the presumed president-elect, must also show some courage and strongly denounce the armed thugs and gangs that have terrorized and paralyzed Port-au-Prince with kidnappings and killings that have made the capital nearly ungovernable.

Mr. Preval, who was president from 1996 to 2001 and is a protege of ousted former President Jean--Bertrand Aristide, benefited last week from the votes of die-hard Aristide supporters whose ranks include these gang members. Mr. Preval must risk alienating them, and other supporters who don't believe in sharing power, if he is to move the country forward. He should reach out to political opponents, those moderate members of the country's business elite seriously interested in helping build a new Haiti and not in undermining the majority's will by funding movements to destabilize the presidency, as they did with Mr. Aristide. Mr. Preval can also end the winner-takes-all political culture by appointing members of different sectors of Haitian society to his government.

Others will have to step up, too, including the United Nations, which has peacekeepers there. The U.N. Security Council is expected to vote Tuesday to extend its mission in Haiti by six more months; it should keep the troops there to deter potential coup plotters from exploiting a hasty U.N. departure. The Organization of American States, which helped carry out the elections, should continue to offer the support of countries in the region. Haiti's biggest benefactor, the United States, and other members of the international community should make promised financial aid available to Mr. Preval to help him rebuild his crumbling country, create jobs and shore up weak civic and judicial systems.

Thus far, Haiti has been a country of false starts. With good governance and consistent outside support, it has a shot at a new beginning.

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