Rene Preval, a 51-year-old agronomist, bakery owner and former prime minister, is expected to be elected Haiti's next president to replace Jean-Bertrand Aristide in tomorrow's elections.
Using voodoo imagery and easy-to-understand symbols for his largely illiterate supporters, Mr Aristide formally endorsed Mr Preval, candidate of his Lavalas (Waterfall) coalition, in a speech yesterday for the first time. That ended weeks of ambiguous comments which had suggested a split between the two men, and the possibility that Mr Aristide would succumb to some of his supporters' demands to call off the elections and stay in power for three more years.
Using the Creole slogan "Titid pou twazan" (Aristide for three years), they say he deserves to serve out the time he lost in exile between the September 1991 military coup and the September 1994 American military intervention, which restored him to power.
"I myself will vote for the candidate of Bo Tab La [Round the Table], Rene Preval," he said to cheers while opening a new bridge in the southern town of Jacmel. The Lavalas party uses the image of a family sitting round a table as its symbol.
At the end of low-key campaigning, which has been largely financed by the US, opinion polls predicted Mr Preval would win 72 per cent of the votes, to only 7 per cent from his nearest challenger, although less than a third of the electorate may bother to turn out. Fifty-one per cent of total votes cast will be enough to avoid a two-candidate January run-off and install Mr Preval in the presidential palace on 7 February.
Mr Aristide described Mr Preval, his pre-coup prime minister, as his marasa, literally "twin" but also a popular voodoo loa (spirit) here. He appeared to be telling Lavalas supporters that voting for Mr Preval was the same as voting for Mr Aristide, who cannot run for a second consecutive term, but could run again in the year 2000. It was also seen as something of a "stay-in-line" warning to the candidate himself, who is believed by some observers to be at odds with the President and planning to set up a breakaway Lavalas faction after taking office.
The possibility causes concern among US and other diplomats who fear Mr Preval is a more radical leftist than Mr Aristide, the fiery former priest with whom few Washington politicians felt comfortable, despite last year's operation to restore democracy and return him to office.
Mr Preval's staff have leaked the news that he would appoint Emmanuel "Manno" Charlemagne, a popular left-wing singer and now mayor of Port- au-Prince, to head the key ministries of Interior and Defence.
Even if tomorrow's election and the 7 February hand-over go off peacefully, Mr Preval may face a rocky road ahead, notably in his relations with Washington during a US election year.
Mr Aristide was highly critical of the US in speeches this week, attacking Washington for holding back economic aid and refusing to hand over intelligence documents taken from the Haitian army and anti-Aristide militias during last year's intervention.
Mr Aristide believes the documents may reveal the extent of CIA activity against him before and during his rule. The US has said it will return the documents after deleting the names of any Americans. An article recently published in the American magazine The Nation claims the US secretly provided arms to the Haitian army and militias while publicly supporting Mr Aristide, and has continued to support the militias since his return to power. It suggests former officers of the now disbanded army and gunmen of the so-called FRAPH militia remain heavily armed, threatening a return to violence after a scheduled pullout of US and other UN troops on 29 February.
In remarks to foreign journalists on Thursday, Mr Aristide maintained the ambiguity that infuriates his US protectors.
"If I want to stay here tomorrow, I may create the conditions to still be here tomorrow," he said.
Most well known politicians are boycotting tomorrow's elections, realising they have no chance against Mr Aristide's grassroots support. Victor Benoit, 54, leader of the National Congress of Democratic Movements (Conacom), is likely to finish a distant second among the 14 candidates, who include the Virgin Mary Party and the fundamentalist Party of God.
The candidate for the former, Dieuveuil Joseph, believes the Virgin talks and writes through him. Mr Joseph says she always sits beside him while he holds a dialogue with what appears to be an empty chair. His solution to Haiti's drastic poverty problem is to install cash machines throughout the country, although he has not said where the money will come from.Reuse content