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Be patient, Haiti says of flawed vote

Looking at the long lines of Haitians who waited patiently and peacefully for hours under a broiling sun to cast their ballots last week, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide saw "a clear sign of political maturity."

Looking at the disorganization that reigned at polling places and in vote counting centers afterward, U.S. election observers from the International Republican Institute saw a complete "national breakdown of the electoral process."

By all accounts, Haiti's first attempt in nearly five years to carry out a democratic vote turned out to be a seriously flawed exercise. On voting day, hundreds of polling places opened hours late or did not open at all because ballots were not received, while others got ballots with the names of some candidates missing.

Then the count quickly deteriorated, with ballots and tally sheets being scattered about, mixed together, replaced entirely or reportedly altered, and even thrown away as garbage.

It is not easy to determine whether last week's irregularities were the product of deliberate wrongdoing or simply an extraordinary display of incompetence.

Many foreign election observers here, especially those from the United States, argue that certain minimal universal standards must be maintained in order for an election to be deemed credible, and that last week's vote failed those tests.

But Aristide, joined by the foreigners most intimately acquainted with election procedures here, has been pleading for Haiti's history of misrule and misery to be taken into account.

The difficulties of organizing a complex parliamentary election, after all, were complicated by Haiti's position as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a population that is 80 percent illiterate, and virtually no highways, electricity or telephones in the rural areas where most of the people live.

Clearly, those harsh realities contributed to the disarray that prevailed on election day, and not just in the form of polling officials who could not read or write.

U.S. observers seemed especially appalled by what the International Republican Institute called "a total absence of safeguards against fraud, tampering, disappearance and destruction of election material."

In the capital, for instance, many ballots were counted under the street lights just outside the regional reporting center, and not at local precincts, as Haiti's electoral code demands.

But polling officials said they acted that way out of concern both for the integrity of the vote and their own safety.

With no electricity in their neighborhoods, they were afraid to count votes in the dark and eager to turn their tallies and ballot boxes over to higher authorities before any zenglendo, as the thugs who have disrupted elections in the past here are known, could intervene.

Yes, they acknowledged, they knew what the law required, but it just was not practical.

At the polls, voters seemed unsure what the election was about and even how to vote. Many seemed to think they were being asked to choose whether to re-elect Aristide, and were startled not to find his picture or name on the ballot.

Some, faced with the task of choosing a single mayoral or parliamentary candidate from as many as 30 competitors, simply threw up their hands or marked an X by every name. Still others voted not for two senators and one deputy, as the ballot requested, but for the reverse.

"The level of ignorance was the worst that I have ever seen," said Benedita da Silva, a Brazilian senator sympathetic to Haiti's situation who was invited to observe the elections from the central plateau town of Hinche. "There was no information and no training," either for voters or election officials.

With a second round of balloting scheduled to take place July 21, the Haitian government and the foreign specialists brought in to help organize the vote are now scrambling to avoid a repetition of last week's electoral fiasco.

They argue that the process will be much easier next time, since election officials have some experience to guide them and voting will be limited to runoffs for the 101 seats at stake in the new Parliament.

But even if the second round and a presidential vote scheduled for December go like clockwork, some deeper issues remain unresolved. Haiti is not a society with any tradition of negotiation and compromise: politics here has always been a winner-take-all game.

Aristide took a step away from that practice by inviting political parties to meet with him to discuss their complaints about the vote, but the level of intransigence remains high both in the opposition and among his own followers.

"I'll only be able to tell you if the results are valid when I see the names of the winners," said Joel Pierre, a 35-year-old unemployed man who supported Aristide's Lavalas ticket. "If the Macoute sector (the former secret police) wins even one seat, then I would say there has been trickery in the election."