Aristide still the power behind throne

PRene Preval, a member of the Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas coalition, will take over from the president on 7 February after a landslide victory in this month's elections.

Official results announced at the Christmas weekend showed Mr Preval, a 52-year-old agronomist and former Prime Minister, winning 88 per cent of the 17 December vote. His closest challenger, the former national police chief Leon Jeune, scored only 2.5 per cent.

Despite Mr Preval's overwhelming victory, the low turn-out of only 28 per cent gave the result an interesting twist, according to residents of the capital, Port-au-Prince. It showed that Mr Aristide, not Mr Preval, remains the most popular man in Haiti and will be seen as the power behind the throne for the next five years.

"Had Titid [Mr Aristide's nickname] been a candidate, there would have been a massive turn-out," said Jean-Robert, a Port-au-Prince taxi driver. "People were not voting for Preval. They were voting for Lavalas [Waterfall]." When Mr Aristide swept to the presidency in 1990, the turn-out was almost 100 per cent.

Many Haitians believe Mr Aristide, for whom Mr Preval served as Prime Minister in 1991 before the former was ousted in a military coup, deliberately encouraged a low turn-out to send a message to Mr Preval. The message: I got you elected but I showed you who controls the Haitian people.

Election observers from the Organisation of American States (OAS) were among those blaming the low turn-out on Mr Aristide, saying he deliberately withheld endorsement of Mr Preval until two days before the election. Mr Aristide's staff and many Haitians responded with disdain, saying many of the OAS team spent the election observing each other in bars.

An OAS media spokesman shocked many by drunkenly lifting the dress of an American newswoman at a post-election party while another OAS observer was thrown out of a hotel bar for drunken behaviour.

Mr Preval's first speech as president-elect, in Port-au-Prince on Saturday night, showed the problems he faces. He had to speak by candlelight amid a four-hour blackout.

Mr Preval's biggest problem, however, will be preventing or dealing with a resurgence of violence once American and other UN forces pull out on 29 February at the end of their peace-keeping mission.