MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Unofficial reports from Haiti show that former president Rene Preval is building a strong lead in the country's presidential election. That lead may be strong enough to avoid a run-off.
Preval was a protege of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Port-au-Prince, Haitians are wondering if a Preval victory would mean a return of Aristide's influence.
COREY FLINTOFF: Throughout the election campaign, Rene Preval has been careful not to connect himself too strongly to Aristide's Lavalas Party. He ran on his own ticket, called La Esperanza, or Hope. But he allowed himself to be adopted by some Lavalas supporters, particularly those in the vast slum areas of Port-au- Prince, where violence is rife and gun battles with U.N. forces common.
This is 33-year-old Butler Alse (ph), a Lavalas supporter in the neighborhood called Bel Aire.
BUTLER ALSE: (Through translator) Yes, it's a victory for President Aristide as well, because Preval was the only one who stood for us when they were shooting us left and right.
FLINTOFF: However, some fear a Preval victory for the same reason, a return of Aristide's influence. 34-year-old Ilar Benue (ph) says he sees Preval as an extention of Aristide and that he would take to the streets to protest a Preval victory.
ILAR BENUE: (Through translator) I'll be left with kidnappings and stealing and burying, as it was with Aristide's government and with Preval.
FLINTOFF: Aristide has dominated Haitian politics since winning the country's first democratic elections in 1990. Within months, he was overthrown in a coup, but returned to power in 1994 by the United States. Because Aristide was barred from a second consecutive term, Preval succeeded him and ruled the country until 2001, when Aristide was reelected. But Aristide was ousted again in 2004, after a violent uprising.
Many people in the slums of Port-au-Prince believe Aristide's exile was engineered by Haiti's business community and supported by the Bush administration, France, and Canada. They say U.S. marines hustled Aristide out of Haiti after U.S. officials told him they wouldn't guarantee his safety if he remained. Aristide now lives in South Africa.
U.S. Charge d'Affaires in Haiti Tim Carney says the U.S. was pleased to, as he puts it, facilitate Aristide's departure. However, he says the U.S. expects to be able to work with whomever wins this election.
TIM CARNEY: The only individuals that we cannot work with are those who have given themselves to the traffic in drugs and to those who are men of violence. Let me add that none of the frontrunners in this race fit in to either of those categories.
FLINTOFF: Rene Preval himself recently said that there's no legal barrier to Aristide coming home. But he did note that the former president might have to stand trial to clear himself of corruption charges. Aristide's opponents charge that he provided guns to the slum gangs who supported him, guns that were used for kidnapping, extortion, and murder. They also say he took bribes from drug traffickers who used Haiti as a way station to the U.S. Aristide denies the charges.
Political commentator Kesnir Pharrell (ph) says the massive and peaceful turnout of Haitian voters on Tuesday was a clear indication that times have changed. He says it should let Haiti's political players know that the era of winner take all politics and infighting is over.
KESNIR PHARRELL: The Haitian people have sent a big message, and I think the political class got to understand Haitian people said, that's enough. Let's get together. And that's what Preval got to say.
FLINTOFF: Preliminary results from the race are expected to come out over the next several days. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
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