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More Special Reports
|Posted Friday, February 10, 2006|
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
|Rene Preval, the leader in early returns.|
|Candidate of Haiti's Poor Leads in Early Tally With 61% of Vote|
By GINGER THOMPSON
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 9 Unofficial electoral results that had been carried in by mules, trucks and helicopters from polling centers across the country appeared Thursday to give an early lead to René Préval, a former president considered a champion of the poor masses and a thorn in the side of the elite.
The Provisional Electoral Council announced Thursday night that Mr. Préval had won 61 percent of the 15 percent of the votes tabulated from the election Tuesday, including 67 percent of the votes counted so far in the department that includes Port-au-Prince.
While several of his opponents quietly began to move toward conceding, others cautioned that it was still too early to declare a winner, and the political hostilities that have kept this country near the brink of anarchy lingered in the air.
Heavily armed gang members who control some of the slums that are Mr. Préval's political strongholds have threatened violence if he is not declared the winner with more than 50 percent of the votes, thereby avoiding a runoff election. It was also from the slums that Mr. Préval's mentor, the former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, drew his political strength.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
|Haitians played dominoes and listened to a radio for presidential election returns Thursday evening in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cite Soleil, a slum area where Rene Preval drew strong support.|
A spokesman for Charles-Henry Baker, a wealthy factory owner considered the candidate of the tiny elite, said his campaign had begun preparing charges of fraud to try to stop Mr. Préval from winning power.
As Haiti, a country of 8.5 million people, braced for final results, which are not expected until this weekend, it was not easy to tell whether the nation was on the verge of its first real steps out of anarchy, or set to plunge into another cycle of political upheaval.
Ending the political fighting between the rich and the poor must be the first of a long list of priorities for its next president. And the question looming over Mr. Préval is whether a man whose previous term as president was overshadowed by Mr. Aristide, a polarizing political leader, is up to the task.
"Préval has to turn history upside down in Haiti," said Mark Schneider, of the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan organization focusing on conflict resolution. "For decades, if not centuries, Haitian politics have been ruled by a take-no-prisoners mentality. The determination of the Haitian people to use the ballot to change their history became evident after the record turnout Tuesday. And if the early reports of a first round win turn out to be accurate, I would hope that René Préval knows that he cannot govern alone."
In an interview last month at his sister's house in Port-au-Prince, and then another this week in Marmelade, his father's hometown, Mr. Préval, a former bakery owner, said his priority would be to provide relief to the two-thirds of the population living in extreme poverty. His plans include what he described as a "universal public school program," and at least one free meal a day for poor children.
Mr. Préval also said he would investigate the cases of hundreds of prisoners who claim they are being held for political purposes, and would negotiate with gangs, rather than using only force against them, to end violence and lawlessness in slums like Cité Soleil.
"What do you prefer?" he asked. "An amnesty, or for people to keep dying?"
Mr. Préval said he that would recruit Haitian professionals overseas to help rebuild the government, and hinted that he had offered a job in his administration to a former presidential candidate, Dumarsais Siméus, a Haitian-born business magnate who was forced out of the race because he is an American citizen.
A chief objective of Mr. Préval's government, one of his advisers said, would be to attract more investment from the United States. In the last decade, the adviser said, United States investment in Haiti was less than $10 million, the amount invested in a single year in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
But Mr. Préval also suggested that he would reach out to his opponents among the middle and upper classes. He said that much of his campaign had been financed by the elite, and that he would appoint a prime minister from the political party that wins control of the parliament, which is highly unlikely to be his own.
"People know that I don't like to speak of myself," said Mr. Préval, 63. "But I think the first thing that people appreciate about me is that Préval has not stolen. Préval is not an assassin. Préval respects freedom. Préval is frank and honest.
"He says what he can and cannot do, and he doesn't make promises he cannot keep."
After graduating from college in Belgium, he lived in New York. "I always told my father I worked on Wall Street," Mr. Préval said of those years. "But I never told him I was a messenger. I used to think how my father would kill me if he saw me sweeping floors and making coffee."
By 1990, Mr. Préval had returned to Haiti and had opened a bakery that supplied bread to an orphanage run by Mr. Aristide, who was then a priest. When Mr. Aristide rose to power as Haiti's first elected president, he appointed Mr. Préval prime minister.
Haitians called the men the Twins. In voodoo, twins are believed to have an eternal bond and magical powers. And after Mr. Aristide was overthrown by a military coup, Mr. Préval went with him into exile.
When Mr. Aristide was restored to power in 1994, Mr. Préval returned with him. And with Mr. Aristide's blessing a year later, Mr. Préval was elected president a year later.
He was credited with supporting important human rights investigations that led to trials and convictions against high-ranking police and military officers involved in political assassinations.
But his government was crippled by a Parliament dominated by his opponents and meddling by his old ally, Mr. Aristide. And critics said his greatest single achievement was becoming the only president, in a country roiled by a long history of military coups, to finish a full term in office and peacefully turn over power.
Political observers said Mr. Préval, who served as president from 1996 to 2000, was not able to keep many promises during his last term in office.
A slight, unassuming, plain-talking agronomist, Mr. Préval had never been a high achiever before he stumbled into political power in the shadows of the extremely charismatic Mr. Aristide. And until now he had essentially stayed there.
His successor was Mr. Aristide. But by then, aides to Mr. Préval said, relations between the two had been severely strained, and Mr. Préval retired to his father's hometown, near the north coast.
Then two years ago, another armed uprising, along with pressure by the United States, forced Mr. Aristide from power and pushed Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country, close to collapse.
Political observers have said Mr. Préval was sought out by the United States and governments leading the United Nations Stabilization Mission struggling to restore order.
"I think Préval wants to show he's his own man, that he can leave his own legacy, and solve some of this country's worst problems," said Mr. Schneider, of the International Crisis Group. "Hopefully his opposition will recognize they don't have an option, for the sake of the country, but to cooperate."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Friday, February 10, 2006.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A second presidency of Preval: Again, a bridge of sorts to desperation, boat people for the United States and totalitarian dictatorship.
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