Amid the squalor of Cité Soleil, Haitians hope elections could be their salvation

Here, amid the gardens lush with bright bougainvilléa and safe behind high metal gates, it is possible to stand in the evening coolness and, briefly, forget about the world outside. Yet the softly-spoken 63-year-old can afford no such indulgence.

Today Haiti, the poorest and most chaotic nation in the Western hemisphere, finally votes for a new president in what is one of the country's most crucial elections. And if the polls, combined with evidence on the streets, are correct, Mr Préval will emerge as the country's new leader.

In a country where more than 75 per cent of the population survive on $2 a day and around 50 per cent is judged to be malnourished, his aptly selected campaign slogan is Lespwa - Creole for "hope".

"The presidency that is coming will really be a presidency of transition," said Mr Préval, who has already served a full term as president from 1996 to 2001.

For most of its 200-year history, this Caribbean nation has been wracked by poverty and corruption. It has suffered too from a combination of international economic neglect and political interference. Its last democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted in 2004 in a coup partly supported by the US. In the two years since his exile to South Africa, his supporters have suffered widespread repression.

Mr Préval, a former ally of Mr Aristide, is one of 33 candidates seeking the presidency in an election that has been postponed four times. This unlikely assortment includes an arms dealer, a former army chief, and an accused murderer, as well as the man that led the bloody 2004 rebellion and who has been openly campaigning with a death squad leader. The international groups that helped organise the election say they have been powerless to prevent their participation. They have also seemingly been unable to help the country's most desperate. A half-an-hour drive from Mr Préval's house through the teeming streets of Port-au-Prince, filled with election posters and battered, exhaust-belching vehicles bearing campaign banners, lies Cité Soleil, the city's most desperate slum. It is a world apart.

Constantly threatened by violence and killings perpetrated by armed gangs, many linked to Aristide, and attacks by the Haitian National Police and even UN peacekeepers, the residents of Cité Soleil live in a stinking squalor of rusted metal shanties and open sewers that serve as lavatories. There is no running water, no electricity and the only law-and-order is that of the various gangs. Pigs and dogs eat from huge piles of rotting rubbish. A single bucket of water can cost 15 US cents.

Yet many in Cité Soleil hope and believe that today's election could be their salvation. This week the slum has been unusually calm and gang leaders invited the media to visit and witness the support for Mr Préval in this long-time Aristide stronghold.

"The Haitian people have a destiny to support people who will do good things for them," one gang leader known as Ti Blanc told The Independent as he was organising an election rally in support of Mr Préval. "With Préval we can bring the country out of misery. Nobody in Haiti can match Aristide [but] maybe the change is good. The violence has to end. We have to sit down together - me with everybody else."

In nearby Bel Air, also an often dangerous neighbourhood, Leslie Jean Gilles, a 25-year-old student, said of his favourite candidate: "He thinks about the poorest. Préval and Aristide - they are the same."

His friend, Olich Medios, another Bel Air resident, added: "They are not the same person but they are the same."

The challenge to Mr Préval is to be both different and the same. He must appeal sufficiently to the nation's poor and yet not appear so radical that he will be undermined by the country's business community and elite, the fate suffered by Mr Aristide. In essence, this means he will have to agree to work with the international community and accept the economic reforms imposed by the IMF and World Bank, while at the same time promising investment in social programmes, education and health-care for the poorest.

"I am for the people, for helping the peasants ... for education," he said. "If that makes me left then I am left."

The front-runner's greatest asset is his experience. He served as Haiti's leader between 1996 and 2001, a period when he agreed to previous IMF reforms and actively supported the privatisation of several nationalised industries. He is the country's only president to have left office because of the natural expiration of his term. Ordinary Haitians credit him with building roads and bridges and "getting things done".

By contrast, his nearest rival, Charles Baker, is barely considered Haitian by many of the poor. The white, US-educated industrialist, who is supported by the business groups who organised the ousting of Aristide, claims he is the best equipped to turn Haiti around. Outspoken and sometimes fiery, he says his personal wealth acts as a motivational inspiration for the poor.

The most recent polls have put Mr Préval at 37 per cent with Mr Baker between 10-15 per cent. Leslie Manigat, who served for a few months as the country's first democratically elected president before he was ousted in a military coup in 1988, is in third place. To win outright, a candidate must achieve 50 per cent of the vote. For Mr Préval, avoiding a second round run-off will depend on how many of the 3.5 million voters turn out.

Initially it was feared the threat of violence would intimidate many potential voters, but officials say they hope the deployment of 9,000 UN troops will persuade people to turn out.

Organising the vote has been a vast logistical challenge and there have been many complaints that there are insufficient polling stations. Officials have admitted many will have to walk more than six miles to vote. The UN has had to use mules to transport ballot papers to remote areas.

However difficult it has been to organise, most observers believe that after two years of repressive rule by an interim government imposed by the US, France and Canada after Aristide's ousting, the election is crucial. Camille Chalmers, an economist at the University of Haiti, said: "It is a mobilisation. It is new opportunity. There is a lot of popular enthusiasm in the political process."

Helen Spraos, a Haiti-based worker with Christian Aid, listed some of Haiti's problems - a literacy rate of 50 per cent, a life expectancy of just 52 years, a situation where one in eight children die before they reach the age of five, and where one in 38 women die as a result of pregnancy. They are problems that represent what is at stake in today's election.

"The state ... has never sought to meet the basic needs of its citizens," Ms Spraos said. "Instead, it has been run in the interests of a small elite."

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