Haiti Pressed to Hold Oft-Delayed Elections

U.S. officials are urging Haiti to hold its presidential elections on Jan. 8, despite complaints by election officials that the country still isn't ready. The vote has been put off multiple times since mid-November because of problems with voter registration and inadequate preparations.

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The vote has been put off four times already. Now the United States is urging Haiti to go ahead and hold its presidential elections on January 8th. Election workers there say the country isn't ready yet, struggling as it is to deal with poverty, political instability and rampant lawlessness. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

The elections have been put off since mid-November because of problems with voter registration and inadequate preparations for Election Day. US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns now says it's time to let Haitians go to the polls so a new government can take power.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Undersecretary of State): These elections have been delayed numerous times, and there's always going to be a reason in a country like that where you can say, `Well, we're not quite ready. We could have a better degree of organization.' But if you take that attitude, you may never have the elections.

FLINTOFF: It's been nearly two years since Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced from power in the midst of a violent rebellion by former soldiers and armed gangs. Since then, the country's been under the nominal rule of an interim government led by Prime Minister Gerald Latourtue with the United Nations contingent that's struggling to keep order in an increasingly crime-ridden country. Nicholas Burns says the push to hold the election on January 8th is backed by the UN and the Organization of American States. Not everyone favors the plan, though.

Mr. JOE BAPTISTE (Campaign Manager, Dumarsais Simeus): They cannot push an election just because they want to have an election.

FLINTOFF: Joe Baptiste is the US campaign manager for Dumarsais, a Haitian-American businessman who's currently fighting a court battle to get his name on the presidential ballot.

Mr. BAPTISTE: I feel that election is so important for Haiti right now, for the future of Haiti, that it need to be done properly. It need to be done with a lot of technical support that--they need it. And make sure that the next--whoever's going to be elected won't be contested.

FLINTOFF: The candidate Baptiste is working for, Dumarsais, could benefit from a delay because it would give him more time to press his claim that he's still a Haitian citizen, despite having become a naturalized American and spending decades in the US.

One reason Haiti's electoral council would like to put off the balloting is that millions of voter ID cards must still be distributed and tens of thousands of election workers need to be hired. When the State Department's Nick Burns visited Haiti last week, the commission also asked for more US help.

Mr. BURNS: The request was to have American military helicopters to actually go and collect ballots and be transporting ballots back and forth between distant polling stations and regional capitals. And that really would put us in the uncomfortable position of being the storers and guarantors of the election. That's not the job of the United States. That's the job of the United Nations.

FLINTOFF: Burns says the US has offered to support the UN in other ways so that the UN can provide its own helicopters for the effort. He says the UN, the OAS and Haiti's electoral council can also handle the logistical problems in order to get the vote under way in two weeks' time. Joe Baptiste isn't so sure.

Mr. BAPTISTE: So you try to push something that they're not really ready for and it's going to be for--disaster.

FLINTOFF: Whether the election takes place on January 8th or not, it probably won't be Haiti's deciding presidential vote. With more than 30 candidates in the race, officials are planning a run-off election in mid-February. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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SIEGEL: Eight days of a festival and at least six ways to write it out. A Hanukkah spelling primer just ahead on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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