Poor voter turnout for Haiti economic referendum

PETIONVILLE, Haiti (AP) — Turnout was light and cynicism high Sunday for elections seen as a referendum on an economic plan and expected to clear the way for the return of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Leslie Norvil, 22, was at the polls at Guatemala primary school in Petionville, but not as a voter.
“I’m here to pick up some cash,” he said, explaining that he was hired as a guard. He said he did not see the point in voting. “The country is stuck in the mud, and the people have been cheated.”
At stake Sunday were nine of 27 Senate seats; two in the Chamber of Deputies, including one for a legislator assassinated in a drive-by shooting last year; and thousands of slots on 697 new local councils.
Still, as few as 10 percent of Haiti’s 2 million registered voters were expected to turn out.
“People don’t believe in the electoral process anymore,” former Sen. Jean-Robert Martinez said in southcoast Jacmel. “They say it hasn’t settled anything … and that’s extremely dangerous for democracy.”
The balloting is between candidates supporting and opposing President Rene Preval’s internationally-backed economic policy.
International donors keeping Haiti afloat have demanded austerity measures that would cost thousands of jobs in a country where industry employs only 40,000 of the 7.2 million people. Most Haitians are already unemployed or surviving on odd jobs.
Aristide, who left office a year ago when his term limit expired, opposes international backing and has used the prospect of increased economic hardship to build government opposition.
Sunday’s vote was expected to clear the way for Aristide’s probable return to power. His newly formed Lavalas Family Party already controls the Chamber of Deputies, and its candidates were expected sweep local council elections and gain control of the Senate. The local councils will help choose a 10-year electoral panel that will oversee the next presidential elections, in 2000.
Still, this year’s voter apathy showed how little Haitians believe their country can ever function as a democracy.
An hour after polls opened at Petionville High School, not one voter had cast a ballot and none were in sight. Ten years ago, though, hundreds of people waited to vote here. Army-backed goon squads drove past, shooting, and panicked voters ran. Hundreds across the country had died in previous months in politically inspired terrorism. A few years later, in 1990, nearly everybody turned out to sweep Aristide to power in Haiti’s first democratic election. The army ousted him in September 1991. Military terror ended with the intervention of 20,000 U.S. troops in September 1994, and the Haitian people were full of hope.
But time has not relieved the misery in a nation impoverished by nearly 200 years of civilian and military dictatorships.
Legislative elections in June 1995 drew less than a 50 percent turnout. The December presidential elections won by Preval were better organized, but turnout was less than 30 percent.
Radio Cap-Haitien reported that fewer than 10 percent of voters had turned out by midday Sunday in the northern city of Cap-Haitien. At a polling station at the prime minister’s office, only 36 of 6,800 registered voters — less than 1 percent — had cast a ballot.
Joseph Bigaud, 51, was waiting with five other voters for the cardboard ballot boxes to be folded and put in place at Petionville city hall.
“We’ve suffered greatly from unkept promises,” he said. “Economic reform laws have been proposed, and some have been passed. We’ve been sitting patiently in the car of progress waiting for it to start. Let’s get on with it!”