A general protest strike all but paralyzed Haiti's capital city Saturday, leading jubilant opponents of today's government-controlled presidential election to say that most Haitians will defy the army-led government's orders and boycott the voting.
"It gives a clear picture of what will happen Sunday," a boycott leader said. "I don't think you will see more than 10% of the people voting."
Opponents believe that a low voter turnout will discredit the election results in the eyes of other nations such as the United States and signal that the army-approved victor does not have the support of the Haitian people.
Another boycott leader, former presidential candidate Marc Bazin, said that the strike--planned to extend into a non-voting "day of protest" today--was 80% effective throughout the country.
Preview of Protest
"I think this is a preview of what it will be (today)," said Bazin, a former World Bank economist who had earlier joined three other former front-runners in boycotting the election and calling for the strike.
Although an overwhelming majority of businesses, shops and factories were closed and large parts of the city resembled a ghost town, Information Minister Gerard Noel denied that the obviously popular action was either widespread or effective.
"This strike has no significance to the government," he told reporters. "It is the same people doing the same thing."
Haitian journalists said that Saturday's protest strike was the most widely observed since similar actions last June and July erupted into violence and forced the provisional government of Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy to back down on measures it had taken to seize control of the election from an independent Electoral Council.
In the face of open government hostility, the independent council attempted to hold elections last Nov. 29, but was forced to suspend the balloting when gangs of armed thugs, including uniformed soldiers, killed at least 34 voters at the polls in Port-au-Prince. In a move widely protested as unconstitutional and condemned by the United States and other countries, Namphy dismissed the members of the council and handpicked a new group to run today's second attempt at a nationwide vote for president, both houses of Parliament, and local mayors.
Namphy and his military-dominated provisional government have remained largely silent since November's "bloody Sunday" election failure but have taken a few steps to make the second attempt at least appear credible to foreign and domestic critics. For example, presidential candidates with obvious links to the Duvalier family dictatorship--which ruthlessly ruled Haiti for 29 years--were barred from running and their late-hour appeals to be reinstated were rejected Friday by the Haitian Supreme Court.
To avoid charges that it was railroading its own puppet into the presidency, the government also has cautiously refused to endorse any of the 11 remaining candidates, most of whom are little-known, self-described moderates. A top official said that any of the four front-runners among the officially approved candidates will be acceptable to the Namphy government which, he said, hopes for at least 30% to 50% voter participation in order to give the election international credibility.
The leading contenders are Gerard Philippe Auguste, 64, an agronomist who spent 22 of the Duvalier years in self-imposed exile in Africa, working as a field representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization; Lesly Manigat, 57, a political scientist and university professor who also lived in exile during the Duvalier years and is regarded as the most politically astute of the candidates; Hubert de Ronceray, 55, a Canadian-trained sociologist who once served in the Cabinet of then-President-for-life Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier but broke away to become an outspoken critic of the dictatorship, and Gregoire Eugene, 62, a law professor who was regarded as a favorite of the army in November's election attempt.
All four have made it clear, during an abbreviated and unspirited campaign, that they will be conciliatory toward Namphy and his officers and not vindictive toward former Duvalierists considered responsible for the crimes of the past three decades, including recent acts of bloody terrorism.
Not Looking for 'Quarrel'
"We won't look for a quarrel with the army and the army won't look for a quarrel with us," Auguste said.
Echoing similar remarks by the other leading candidates, Manigat said in an interview that if 30% to 40% of Haiti's 3 million registered voters cast ballots, the election will be credible.
"But if we have less than 10% participation, it will be a problem, even though the results will be legally binding," he said. "It will create a perception of weakness for the new government."
"We are not going to have perfect conditions for an ideal democratic election," Manigat added, "but I believe the result will be acceptable if we don't have obvious fraud, like ballot box stuffing."
A new election law decreed last month by the government-appointed Electoral Council leaves open the possibility of ballot-rigging and voter intimidation, and opponents already have charged widespread preparations by the government to intimidate large numbers of voters and force them to the polls.
Meanwhile, fears of renewed violence were widespread on election eve despite intensive, round-the-clock security patrols of soldiers and police.
The uniformed men appeared to be on the lookout for the armed bands of thugs that they had, in stark contrast, permitted to roam freely during the bloody November election campaign. Numerous military roadblocks have been erected throughout Port-au-Prince, and people found to be carrying guns, even licensed ones, have been arrested.
Nevertheless, thousands of residents of the capital city have fled to their home provinces during the past week, many of them citing fear of violence as the reason.
"It's just a feeling of insecurity, not necessarily a protest," explained a government official acknowledging the exodus.