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27876: Sajous(Editorial) Chicago Tribune Haiti almost gets it right (fwd)

Pierre-Andre Sajous

 In my opinion an excellent editorial.

 Haiti almost gets it right

 February 17, 2006
 In a field of 33 candidates for president of Haiti, Rene Preval was the
undisputed leader of the pack. With 90 percent of the votes counted, he had
percent--just shy of the 50 percent-plus-one-vote needed by law to avoid a

 With Preval supporters crying foul and threatening to riot, though, election
officials decided close was good enough. They changed the rules, threw out
enough ballots to cook the results and declared Preval the president.

 There's little doubt Preval would have been the eventual winner, so maybe
everyone will just accept what happened and move on. But there's little
historical precedent for that in Haiti.

 Only 20 years into this democracy business, Haitians have little experience
with the electoral process and lots of experience with corrupt governments.
When they want to change leaders, the usual solution still is to overthrow

 Preval, who was president from 1996 to 2001, is the only Haitian president
to have completed a full term. More common is the fate of former president
Leslie Manigat, who was elected in 1988 in balloting that was rigged by the
military, then was ousted by the military after five months. (Manigat finished

distant second in this latest balloting.) Haiti has been run by a U.S.-backed
interim government for two years, since its last president, Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, fled a bloody rebellion.

 The Feb. 7 election was supposed to set Haiti on track to becoming a stable
democracy with a legitimately elected leader, but Thursday's compromise
undermines that.

 Going into the election, it was presumed there would be a March 19 runoff
because there were so many candidates. But early returns showed Preval with
close to half of the 2.2 million votes, and supporters began to believe he

win outright. As counting slowed and Preval's numbers slipped lower, the
supporters began to suspect fraud. And probably with good reason: Thousands of
marked ballots were discovered in a landfill north of the capital.

 About 85,000 blank ballots were collected at polling places, and by law
they're supposed to count in the total. Preval's supporters charge that they
illegally inserted to water down his vote percentage and force a runoff. After
three days of angry protests, the interim government and Haiti's Provisional
Electoral Council struck a deal: They subtracted the blank ballots from the
total, nudging Preval to victory. With an asterisk.

 Anything's possible in Haiti, but it's unlikely that Manigat, who got 12
percent in the first round, could have overtaken Preval on the next ballot. But

that's an argument for following through with the runoff, not for skipping it.

 A second-round victory would have cemented Preval's authority and instilled
confidence in the electoral process.

 Election officials, who postponed the vote four times for security reasons
and still somehow didn't get it right, passed up their last chance to conduct
an airtight election.

 They opted instead to switch rules in the middle of the game. It will be
hard for them to rebut the inevitable charge that this election, too, was

 Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune

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