Rene Preval, a former president seen as a champion of Haiti’s poor, appeared headed Thursday to a first-round election victory, even before official results were announced.
Preval, a former protege and one-time ally of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was characteristically low-key as reports of election returns landed at his party headquarters in Port-au-Prince. A campaign official said Preval had won almost 68 percent of the 359,000 votes counted so far.
Leslie Manigat, believed to be Preval’s strongest rival in the field of nearly three dozen candidates, said early returns showed Preval has surged ahead.
“There is a tiny chance that we will have a second round, but I fear Preval has made a clean sweep of the votes,” Manigat said.
Standing on the porch of his family home in Marmelade, a rural northern town, Preval said he was marking time and catching up on sleep until official results are made public. Election officials said that might not be until late Friday or Saturday.
“My work is over,” Preval told The Associated Press. “I’m waiting. It’s boring.”
Big work for whoever wins
His campaigning is ended unless he fails to win a majority and must go to a second-round election in March against the other top vote-getter. But Preval faces monumental tasks if he wins the presidency of this impoverished nation.
Most Haitians can’t read or write and subsist on about a dollar a day. A wave of kidnappings by armed gangs has swept the capital. Amid the insecurity, assembly plants are closing, causing the losses of thousands of jobs. Donor nations are hesitant to contribute because of a legacy of government corruption.
Preval’s own tenure as president from 1996 to 2001 was less than stellar. His efforts at agrarian reform failed because poor people who received land couldn’t live on the small amount they were given. He clashed with parliament over the legitimacy of legislators who won contested elections. Human rights advocates accused him of interfering in the judicial system and of politicizing the police force.
‘Long live Preval!’
But poor Haitians remember that Preval tried to help them. Even the smaller efforts are remembered by those whose plight was ignored by a series of governments and dictatorships.
“He built the big marketplace downtown. He fixed it so that the vendors could get out of the mud,” said Yves Valea, a 70-year-old street sweeper.
In Cite Soleil, a slum ruled by gangs that have grown stronger since a rebellion ousted Aristide two years ago, a dozen jobless youths stood idle outside decrepit storefronts plastered with Preval campaign posters. Some of the young men shouted: “Long live Preval!”
Israel Privil, a 40-year-old shoe repairman standing nearby, proudly pointed to his ink-stained thumb, proof he voted Tuesday.
“I voted for Preval because I was without hope,” he said. “When Preval was in power, there were agricultural jobs and more programs for the peasants. We hope that if he becomes president he’ll continue that work.”
Preval pictures himself as a reluctant candidate.
When he stepped down as president after five years — the only Haitian president to complete his term in office — Preval went to live in his grandmother’s house in Marmelade, where he devoted himself to local development projects.
He said he decided to run for the presidency after 1,000 people from across the country came to see him in July and urged him to run.
Preval stood for years in the shadow of Aristide, his dominating predecessor. Aristide, who referred to Preval as his “twin,” was ousted amid accusations he ordered gangsters to attack opponents and pocketed millions of dollars.
Preval made a point of saying in a recent interview that he has split with Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa.
Fresh start with Washington?
“If I’m his ‘twin,’ we do not have the same mother,” Preval told the AP. Preval pointed out that nothing can legally prevent Aristide from returning to Haiti, but added that he may have to face a trial.
Preval would have a fresh start in relations with Washington, said Robert Fatton, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
“When (Preval) was president, the U.S. did not necessarily think he was a bad man, but they considered he had his hands tied up by Aristide,” Fatton said in a telephone interview. “The U.S. now believes Preval is his own man.”