Preval Leading Haiti Presidential Election; Rebuilding an Uphill Task

Haiti's likely next president, Rene Preval, faces a crowded and demanding agenda if he is to have a chance of resuscitating this Caribbean nation from dire poverty.

He must move quickly to stem gang violence causing manufacturers to close their doors, eliminating thousands of jobs in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. And he will have to negotiate with parliament — his Lespwa Party is not expected to receive a majority — to name a Cabinet and prime minister and pass legislation.

Election workers on Friday tallied votes three days after a huge voter turnout almost overwhelmed poll workers. Preval, a former president who is highly popular among the poor, had 50.26 percent of 1.1 million votes counted so far. The rest of the 32 candidates were far behind, with Leslie Manigat, in second place, capturing only 11 percent.

The winning candidate needs 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a March runoff.

More than 1.75 million votes were cast, U.N. officials said. Max Mathurin, president of Haiti's electoral council, said it was not known when the vote count would be completed.

If Preval wins, he will have to open negotiations with opposition parties in parliament. The gang violence fueling job losses must be stopped, and he must assure the poor he will be effective.

"Everything in Haiti is broken and everything needs fixing," said Robert Maguire, director of the international affairs program at Trinity University in Washington. "One of the most immediate tasks is reconciliation and dialogue among Haitians."

Preval, an agronomist, has not announced any specific plans for addressing Haiti's problems, beyond pledging to improve security and create jobs — the same promises made by all the major candidates in the election.

Preval, whose Lespwa Party's name means "hope" in Creole, was president from 1996-2001. Then, his efforts at agrarian reform failed because poor people were not given enough land to live on. And human rights advocates accused him of interfering in the judicial system and of politicizing the police force.

Haiti has been without an elected leadership and has been descending into anarchy since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a bloody rebellion two years ago. The voter turnout showed Haitians long for stability.

Preval, a 63-year-old former Aristide protege, has refrained from declaring victory, but indicated he would have an unconventional style.

"Don't ask me to wear a tie," he told reporters Friday in his home village of Marmelade. He also recalled his youthful days as an anarchist.

"I still am," he quipped, adding that he is a nonviolent one who believes power should flow from government to the people.

Preval must help bring together Haiti's polarized society that is split between the few rich and the majority poor, experts say.

Preval already has strong support from Cite Soleil, the Port-au-Prince slum where U.N. peacekeepers have regularly traded fire with well-armed gang members. A gang leader who goes by the name Toutou said armed factions are willing to "put down our guns" if their opponents do the same.

"I think Preval is going to come in and help with health care, put more schools in the slum, bring treated water to drink and teams who can come in and clean the sewers," said Toutou, who describes himself as a social activist.

Preval's honeymoon period is apt to be short among those who live in the sprawling slums, where a lack of opportunity has steered young men into gangs that have battled U.N. peacekeepers and kidnapped hundreds of people for ransom.

"The window will probably not be open too long," Maguire said. "He will have to show some improvement in their lives. And he will need partnerships of Haitians with resources to do this."

Since wealthier Haitians have been among the kidnap victims, "It's in their interest ultimately to become proactive in trying to address the problems of Haiti's poor," Maguire said in a telephone interview.

Election returns indicated Preval might win a majority of the votes and avoid a March runoff. Charles Henri Baker, a businessman was in third place with 8 percent, said fraud may have committed.

"We're starting to hear that people voted five times, 10 times, 20 times," Baker said. "This is a worry to us because we don't know if it happened at one center, 10 centers... or all over the country."

Freud Jean, a member of the electoral council, denied the allegations. International observers have praised Tuesday's elections as free and fair.

If Preval wins, it will be people like Baker — a wealthy garment factory owner — he must try to win over so Haiti charts a new course, Maguire said.

"Preval is going to have to be bringing people to the table and finding common ground to move forward," he said. "It is going to be quite a challenge."