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Haitians cast ballots for leaders, democracy

Democracy scored a fragile victory Sunday as Haitians trooped to the polls under a blazing sun and a cloud of confusion to vote on all but 10 of the country's 2,205 elected offices.

Perhaps most important, the election was virtually free of the violence that marred previous ones.

The vote was an important test not only of Haiti's incipient democracy, but of American foreign policy and the United Nations.

The Clinton administration, which sent more than 20,000 troops to Haiti last fall to oust a military dictatorship, furnished most of the money to organize the vote. The United Nations has provided both technical assistance and security.

The vote was the largest and most difficult to organize in Haitian history. An estimated 3.5-million voters, or nearly 90 percent of those eligible, registered to vote. More than 10,000 candidates were running for positions ranging from more than 100 Parliament seats to more than 500 municipal council posts.

After three years of brutal military rule, the anticipation was high.

"It is a joyous day," Marie-Rose Britus, 18, a first-time voter in the southern town of Gressier, said as she waited in line.

Britus said she had awakened before dawn and walked more than two hours down a steep mountainside to cast her ballot. Her vote, she said diffidently, went to the Lavalas ticket, which supports President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Aristide himself, overthrown by a military coup Sept. 30, 1991, and restored to power by the intervention of American troops last Oct. 15, voted just before 11 a.m., strolling from his home to a nearby school. Elsewhere, voters boarded flatbed trucks, crowded onto ramshackle buses, sailed in small boats or mounted horses and donkeys to get to polling places.

In many areas, the organizational deficiencies evident throughout the campaign appeared to be affecting voting. In the capital, about half the polling places opened late and one precinct official was shot in the arm. But once balloting began, voters remained calm and orderly, patiently waiting in line in the 90-degree heat.

In the northeastern region around Fort Liberte, however, "the process has virtually come to a standstill," the Organization of American States reported Sunday afternoon, "with all deputy candidates boycotting the process, very poor turnout, alleged death threats against communal electoral bureau presidents and demonstrations in most places."

Eric Falt, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force of 6,000 soldiers and 900 police officers who are providing election security, said that all voting had been postponed for the day in three districts in the north, in the area around Cap-Haitien.

Voting will resume in those districts in several days.

In all three cases, the decision, which affected an estimated 75,000 voters, stemmed from attacks early Saturday on communal polling centers where ballots and other election supplies were being stored.