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Against backdrop of fear, Haitians go to polls

The elections were only days away, but Senate candidate Marie-Denise Claude wasn't campaigning.

The 39-year-old sociologist ended her public rallies weeks ago _ even before one of her opposition party's campaign managers was hacked to death last month amid pre-election violence that hangs over today's scheduled vote like a curtain of fear.

For Claude, the death threats were enough: anonymous calls that have continued almost daily, promising her the same fate that met her father, former presidential candidate Pastor Sylvio Claude, who was tortured, burned alive, then eaten by his enemies nearly a decade ago.

"No one is campaigning anymore," she said. "It's natural _ when your life is threatened, you stay home. But we keep on going because we believe it's the only contribution we can make to the country and its future."

Against the backdrop of 15 high-profile political murders that the opposition blames on a plot by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's ruling party to paralyze their candidates and voters with fear, Haiti braces for long-delayed local and parliamentary polls that most analysts see as a watershed for its nascent democracy.

In a land that has seen 10 governments and three coups in the past 14 years _ and that has been ruled by decree since its elected president, Rene Preval, dissolved Parliament 16 months ago _ today's vote seems a daunting exercise in grass-roots democracy.

More than 29,000 candidates are vying for 7,500 posts ranging from village councils to Parliament's 83-seat lower house and 27-seat Senate. It is a Herculean task in a country that has been plagued by pre-election snags and administrative nightmares that some observers say already have disenfranchised many.

U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $20-million trying to prepare Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, for the vote as part of a six-year, $2.3-billion international effort to restore democracy and stability here.

The election aid includes financing for Haitian political parties and an elaborate voter ID process that has, for the first time, registered about 4-million Haitians.

More than 200 independent election observers from the Organization of American States and other international groups will watch the polls. But fears of election day violence abound, as do conspiracy theories about postelection tampering and wholesale fraud within a supposedly independent election commission that neither the opposition nor the ruling party seems to trust.

And just how many of those 4-million voters actually turn out will help determine the future of political pluralism in a deteriorating land where drug trafficking, corruption and impunity are growing threats, even after the world's massive rescue efforts.

Today's vote is just round one. A second stage that will include runoffs for Parliament is scheduled for June 25. And presidential polls are expected later this year, when Aristide is expected to run _ and win _ again.

Opposition leaders such as Marie-Denise Claude, whose Haitian Christian Democratic Party was founded by her father in 1978, blame Aristide's supporters for much of the campaign violence. They say his Family Lavalas party workers had hoped the violence would delay the parliamentary vote until the presidential poll, when Aristide's coattails would improve his party's chances.

Now, they say, it is an organized campaign to scare opposition voters away from the nation's 11,000 polling places.

"This violence now has a name in Haiti. It is called Lavalas, and everyone knows it," asserted Evans Paul, a leading presidential contender whose opposition party alliance is fielding more than 5,000 candidates. "The problem is that if these elections are free and fair, Lavalas will lose.

"In order to prevent large parts of the population from voting, they have kept this climate of violence going so that on election day only Aristide's partisans will vote."

Family Lavalas officials flatly deny the charge, and Aristide and his hand-picked successor, Preval, have called on the nation to vote freely, fairly and peacefully. Yet diplomats and independent analysts here say the overwhelming majority of the 15 political murder victims were opposition figures.

But analysts and the candidates themselves say there's another dimension to the violence beyond politics.

Even Paul attributed at least some of the bloodshed to the nation's escalating cocaine trade. U.S. officials say Haiti is now the Caribbean's largest single transit point for Colombian drugs en route to the United States _ an estimated 67 tons last year.

"If you say nothing else about these elections, I want you to say this: What you see in Haiti right now ultimately has nothing to do with politics," Senate candidate Claude said. "It's a game for the absolute control of drug trafficking, and it's very, very grave. It's a big market, and everybody is fighting to control it. Whoever is in power will take control of it."