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Haitian elections a primer for future

More than 10,000 candidates are running for election in Haiti on Sunday, and the United States is spending $10-million to help the voting be free and fair.

These are the first major elections since Haiti's popular president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, won a landslide in 1990, went into exile after a bloody coup, and then returned to power last fall with the help of U.S. troops.

No one expects perfection in a nation where safe, democratic elections are new and rare, so to monitor the balloting, U.S. officials are willing to pay a cost that runs to more than $3 for every Haitian voter.

Haitian elections are unlike those in the United States. Only 1 in 4 Haitians can read or write, and therefore ballots feature party emblems, including fruit, fish, a fighting cock and a clerical collar, to help voters identify their candidates.

Voters will choose two-thirds of the 27-member Senate, the entire 83-seat Chamber of Deputies and hundreds of municipal and local council members. The election could ease the country's slow and painful transition to elective government. It will be an important dry run for presidential elections in December when Haitians will have to find a replacement for Aristide, who cannot stand for a second term.

A peaceful outcome could shape Haiti's political future to the end of the century, while offering a crucial indicator of how much stability the country has attained during the U.S. military presence.

Observers are holding their breath.

Despite some irregularities, including thousands of missing voter-registration documents and the assassination of several candidates, widespread fears of fraud and violence have not been realized.

On Monday night, a right-of-center parliamentary candidate, Milot Gousse, escaped an attack by gunmen who chased his car down a remote highway. A passenger in the car was shot dead.

Bloodshed has typified previous elections. In 1987 paramilitary thugs massacred at least 17 people. This year some analysts warned that allies of the military who went underground when Aristide returned, could pose a threat to peaceful polling.

"If we compare this campaign with those of the past we see that there has been fairly little violence linked to the elections," said United Nations spokesman Eric Falt.

Falt said U.N. troops, who took over peacekeeping duties from the U.S.-led intervention force in March, will be out on election day. Some 6,000 troops and 900 international civilian police monitors will help guard as many as possible of the 10,031 polling places. Just in case, a special rapid-reaction force of 500 soldiers has been readied to respond to violence.

With an estimated 3-million voters registered, most of the electoral costs _ about $15-million _ are being paid by foreign money, two-thirds of it American. The money pays for military security, monitoring and materials.

Hundreds of foreign observers have flown in to monitor the elections, including a 300-member team from the Organization of American States and a 30-person U.S. delegation dispatched by President Clinton, which includes Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat. Also observing is U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, a Sanibel Republican who is heading a 20-member delegation from the International Republican Institute.

"This election is a significant test of the durability of Haiti's new democracy," said Graham, adding: "We have made a political, military and financial investment, and it is of special importance to Florida that democracy is sustained."

Allegations of fraud have focused on reports that as many as 1-million registration cards are missing. About 60,000 cards have been recovered, and officials have since played down the affair, suggesting that earlier figures may have been inflated.

"As far as we know, there weren't 1-million cards lost," said Lakhdar Brahimi, the head of the U.N. mission. "I don't think it is a very serious problem."

The absence of party symbols on some ballot papers has contributed to the confusion. More than 100 candidates have complained that their symbols are missing, including a candidate in the key race for mayor of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

But officials placed the blame on candidates who missed the printing deadline, which could not be extended since the ballots were printed by a California company.

However, some candidates have argued that a Haitian company should have been chosen to allow for last-minute changes. The printing company was chosen in competitive bidding by a Washington-based, non-governmental consultant, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Once printed, the ballots were flown on U.S. military planes to Haiti.

Many new parties have sprung up for the elections, but with Aristide not standing, the main contenders are the parties most closely associated with him. The broad left-wing coalition that backed Aristide in 1990 has split, creating a deep rivalry between the center-left National Front for Democracy and Change (FNCD) and the radical, far-left Lavalas Political Organization (OPL).

The two parties have fought to inherit the popular legacy of Aristide. The FNCD uses as its emblem the fighting cock, long associated with Aristide.

The OPL has had to come up with a new slogan, "Gather round the table," with its emblem: four people seated at a table.

In his role as president, Aristide is officially barred from campaigning. But he has not hidden his preference. His recent televised speeches have been laced with images of tables.

A big victory for the OPL could fuel popular demands that Aristide's term in office be extended to compensate for the years he spent in exile. But that would breach a pledge Aristide made to Clinton before U.S. troops were sent to Haiti, something he has said he will not do.

_ Information from Reuters, the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.