Leading article: Optimism must be tempered

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Notwithstanding some hitches, Haiti's long-overdue presidential election on Tuesday appears to have gone off reasonably well. At least three people were killed in violence related to the ballotting, and polling procedures in some districts left much to be desired, to put it mildly. But by Haiti's turbulent standards, the voting was relatively peaceful, and the turnout appears to have been high. The head of the Organisation of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, has given the election a clean bill of health. Who ever wins will thus be able to claim both legitimacy and a valid mandate.

The result may not be known until the weekend or later, but that winner seems likely to be René Préval, an ally of the deposed former President Jean-Baptiste Aristide, who has inherited the support of the swathes of ordinary Haitians who carried Mr Aristide to power, first in 1990, and then in 2000. A Préval victory would be the best outcome - but hopes should not be set too high.

Election or no election, Haiti will remain the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Election or no election, it will continue to bear a crippling burden of violence, corruption and a devastated environment. Election or no election, profound social divisions will remain, between a small, wealthy, French-speaking business élite, and the great mass of the population, the Creole-speaking black majority, who must make do on an income of barely $1 a day. Allowing for inflation, the average Haitian is poorer than he or she was in 1955. And the United Nations has described the human rights situation as "catastrophic".

Even so, a much-postponed vote in an impoverished and insignificant Caribbean country nonetheless offers some important wider lessons, as the Bush administration pursues its self-appointed mission of bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East and beyond. One is that in countries with as skimpy a democratic tradition as Haiti, reasonably fair elections alone are no guarantee of political stability and economic betterment. Another is that if you support free elections, then you cannot be choosy about the results.

The US - always the potential arbiter in Haitian affairs - may be disappointed by a victory for Mr Préval, a protégé of Mr Aristide who in 2004 was forced into exile largely at Washington's insistence. This time the White House has promised to work with whoever emerges victorious. It must be as good at its word. If Haiti is to have the remotest chance of a new future, it will need committed, long-term help from Europe and America, not policymakers in Washington cynically trying to impose their will from afar.

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