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28331: (news) Chamberlain: Haiti-Elections (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>


   PORT-AU-PRINCE, April 21 (AP) -- Polling stations were nearly empty
Friday in a crucial legislative runoff intended to give this impoverished
Caribbean nation its first popularly elected government since a revolt
ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years ago.
   The absence of lines and apparent public enthusiasm for the election was
in sharp contrast to February's presidential vote, which returned former
President Rene Preval to power.
   "It's a slow start," said David Wimhurst, a spokesman for the U.N.
mission that was called to Haiti to help restore order following Aristide's
ouster. "We think some people are waiting to see if they can vote later in
the day. We expect it to pick up."
   Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers fanned out across the country to guard
polling stations, but only a tiny fraction of Haiti's 3.5 million
registered voters had arrived to cast ballots shortly after voting opened
at dawn. There were no immediate reports of disturbances or other problems.
   Hundreds of candidates from more than a dozen parties are seeking 127
legislative seats. The race features candidates from a broad political
spectrum, including members of Aristide's center-left Lavalas party, former
rebels who helped oust him and several center-right, pro-business
   "I want change for my country. We need development and opportunities, so
that's why I came out to vote," said Garry Alcy, 35, one of about 50 people
voting at a high school in Petionville, a suburb of the capital
   Under Haiti's constitution, the party or coalition with the most
parliamentary seats gets to choose the prime minister, who acts as head of
government and appoints Cabinet members and most administrative posts.
   Preval's Lespwa party is likely to capture the largest number of seats,
but no party has enough candidates to win a majority, meaning Preval will
need to forge a coalition government. Final results are expected in about a
   "We're here to vote for parliament because they will vote on the laws
that will make our country better," said 26-year-old Patrick Saint-Tume,
clutching his voter ID card as he stood in line at an almost empty voting
station near Port-au-Prince's downtown.
   Preval, a former president who shares Aristide's wide support among
Haiti's poor masses, had urged citizens to vote, but the 63-year-old did
little campaigning for candidates of Lespwa, which means "hope" in Creole.
   A strong showing for Preval's party would boost his legislative agenda
to rebuild Haiti, which has been battered by gang violence, the closure of
many textile factories and high unemployment since the February 2004
uprising that forced out Aristide.
   Preval, who was voting in his northern hometown of Marmalade, takes
power next month and has pledged to restore security and attract jobs.
   Election officials urged voters to cast ballots but said a low turnout
wouldn't undermine the result.
   "We will get a respectable percentage of voters to make this election
legitimate," said Jacques Bernard, director general of Haiti's electoral
council. He blamed the poor turnout on a tendency among Haitians to vote in
large numbers only in presidential elections.
   "The mentality in Haiti is to only vote for president, but the election
for senators and deputies is important too," Bernard said on local radio.
   Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has not had a
functioning parliament since 2003, and observers said a huge amount of work
will be needed to get it up and running after it is installed.
   "There's no staff. There's very little in the way of physical
facilities. This is basically starting from scratch," said Dan Erikson, a
Haiti expert with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
   Some 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 3,000 Haitian police were patrolling
the country to prevent violence. Officials have deemed 37 areas as high
security risks and will deploy rapid-response teams to put down any
disturbance, U.N. spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona said.
   Only two candidates won seats in the Feb. 7 first round of elections,
which were hampered by late poll openings, delays in distributing ballots
and a shortage of election workers needed to handle the crush of voters who
jammed polling stations at dawn. Turnout was high because presidential
elections were also held that day.