Violence, Delays Hamper Crucial Haiti Vote

The slogan on the poster hanging inside Haiti's (search) electoral office is simple enough: "Elections are the bridge to democracy." Crossing that bridge, however, is proving anything but easy.

Daily killings and kidnappings, dismally low voter registration and logistical snags are hurting efforts to hold free elections set to start in less than four months in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

The problems are forcing election organizers to consider tough choices, including pushing back municipal races set for October or delaying elections in two volatile slums loyal to ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search), Haiti's first democratically elected leader.

Nearly 7,000 local and regional posts are up for grabs on Oct. 9, while the election for president and 129 legislators is slated for Nov. 13. The new government takes over on Feb. 7, 2006.

So far, just 200,000 of Haiti's 4.5 million eligible voters — less than 5 percent — have registered to cast ballots, with about a month left until registration ends. Only about 100 of 424 planned voter registration sites have opened, though another 117 centers were scheduled to open soon, according to Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council.

"Until the people of Haiti can walk outside of their homes in peace, they cannot be expected to vote," said U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (search), a California Democrat who has called for a delay in Haiti's polls until security is restored. The House refused to support her appeal this week.

The United Nations' special envoy to Haiti, Juan Gabriel Valdes, said it was unrealistic to expect a flawless electoral process.

"These are not Austrian elections, these are Haitian elections," Valdes said. "These elections are not going to be in a country which is in absolute tranquility."

Valdes predicted more Haitians would register in the coming weeks and rejected calls to postpone elections. "There is no alternative to elections except chaos," he said.

Adding to the woes are almost daily gunbattles in the dense slums of Port-au-Prince that are frustrating a 7,400-strong U.N. peacekeeping force and keeping skittish residents from registering. Hundreds of people have been kidnapped for ransom in recent months, including several foreigners.

Most of the violence is blamed on well-armed street gangs loyal to Aristide, who fled Haiti amid a February 2004 revolt. Aristide partisans say they're victims of killings and other atrocities by Haiti's police.

More than 700 people have been slain since September, when Aristide supporters began stepping up calls for his return from exile in South Africa.

The bloodshed has rekindled fears among Haitians of a repeat of a 1987 elections massacre in which assailants gunned down 34 people waiting to vote. Fearful for their safety, few candidates have announced their intention to run in the elections.

"What is happening in Port-au-Prince doesn't make people want to come out and register," said Rosemand Pradel, secretary-general of the Provisional Electoral Council, which suffered a grenade attack in March.

He said the council is trying to extend the registration period until the end of August and hasn't ruled out postponing October local elections "as a last resort."

Pradel also suggested that elections in the pro-Aristide slums of Cite Soleil and Bel-Air — home to several hundred thousand people — could be delayed until the areas "cool down."

Dan Erikson, a Haiti expert with the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, said ongoing slum violence shows that what he called peacekeepers' "kid gloves" strategy of handling gangs "is clearly not working."

"The possibility for good elections in Haiti decreases with every day that the security situation remains unchecked," Erikson said.

The U.N. Security Council this month approved an additional 1,000 troops and police to help secure elections, and Valdes said new rapid-response units were being deployed to better confront violence.

But many Haitians remain wary of casting ballots.

"Yes, I'm scared. They say it's like the 1987 elections. I don't know if it's worth risking my life just to vote," 19-year-old student Yvanne Chalmen said after registering at a downtown center guarded by three men with shotguns.

Frantz Isidor, a 42-year-old bus driver, doubted he'd register, but said there still wasn't a registration center near his home in the capital even if he wanted to.

"I really don't know how we're going to have elections," Isidor said. "Unless it's just going to be a smoke screen and the next day we're going to wake up and hear on the radio who won."