Celebrations as ex-president of Haiti heads for election victory

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The Independent US

Former president René Préval appeared last night to be heading for victory in Haiti's election, as early results showed him sweeping ahead of his rivals. The news was celebrated by the country's poor, while one gang leader even suggested his victory could lead to a handover of weapons.

Officials said that with 283,000 votes, support for Mr Préval - who was president between 1996 and 2001 - stood at 61 per cent. His closest rival, Leslie Manigat - also an ex-president - stood at around 13 per cent. "I am happy that I measure up to the weight of the expectations of the people," Mr Préval told reporters in his home town of Marmalade. "There is a lot of poverty. We will have to work hard."

Haiti's election last Tuesday, its first in six years, was chaotic and up to four people were killed as hundreds of thousands of people voted. In some of the poorer areas there were claims that voters were turned away. But officials kept the polls open until late and, despite the initial problems, most observers believe that the election was a success. Certainly, the violence that many had anticipated did not emerge.

"These were better than anything they've done in Haiti in the past," said Jean-Pierre Kingsley, chairman of the International Mission for Monitoring Haitian Elections. "The Haitian people have pronounced themselves freely and massively. They have put their hope in democracy."

But even in a country where democracy has often been undermined - most recently in 2004 by the US-backed coup that ousted the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide - the election is only a start. In addition to releasing the hundreds of political prisoners, the most pressing challenge will be addressing the shameful poverty that exists in a country just one hour and 40 minutes flying time from Miami.

Up to 75 per cent of the population lives on $2 a day, 50 per cent are considered malnourished and 80 per cent are unemployed. One in eight children dies before they reach the age of five.

"The election of Preval shows that the Haitian elite, the political classes and the international community have failed the ordinary people of Haiti," said Ann Sosin who heads human rights group Vizyon Dwa Ayisyen (Haiti Rights Vision).

Another big problem is the lack of security for most people. Gangs in slums such as Cité Soleil are responsible for killings and rape and the poor have experienced violence at the hands of the Haitian National Police (HNP) - and even UN peacekeepers. A UN anti-gang raid last summer resulted in a number of civilian deaths. An internal report concluded UN troops had used "appropriate force" even though they had used 17,000 rounds of ammunition.

One gang leader, Nicolas Augudson, known as General Toutou, told Reuters he and others would hand over their guns to a Préval administration in a public ceremony. "We are not interested in using weapons any more. The elections have taken place. We are going to have a legitimate government," he said.

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