Clinton, Preval urge quick Haiti elections

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has joined Haitian President Rene Preval in calling for new elections in quake-hit Haiti as soon as possible.

Legislative polls originally set for February and March were postponed after the January 12 earthquake that demolished the capital Port-au-Prince, killing more than 220,000 people and leaving one million Haitians homeless.

Clinton talked with Preval on Tuesday ahead of a planned meeting with President Barack Obama and said he had "made the very important point that we must work toward elections to ensure the stability and legitimacy of the Haitian government.

"I assured President Preval that the United States would work with the international community to hold elections as soon as appropriate," the chief US diplomat said.

Alongside her, Preval said it was imperative that both legislative polls to elect a new parliament and presidential elections to choose his successor were held by the end of the year when he must step down.

"To have a provisional government in a year would be a catastrophe. This government would not have legitimacy, there would be no parliament, that would really be returning to 2004," Preval told reporters.

The Caribbean nation -- the poorest country in the western hemisphere -- has had a long history of dictatorship followed by years of political turmoil and civil unrest.

In 2004, 1,000 US Marines followed by thousands of UN peacekeepers brought order to Haiti after a bloody rebellion against president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's rule. A provisional government was then installed.

The elections call comes as quake survivors say poor governance, corruption and shoddy construction magnified a disaster that was hundreds of times less powerful than the quake in Chile but far more deadly and devastating.

Survivors also lament that Haitian government officials were virtually absent in the quake's aftermath.

Preval, 67, who also served as president from 1996 to 2001, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third mandate. His current term expires in February 2011 and presidential elections are expected in December.

The Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) recalled reports saying that 15 political parties would have been excluded from the February and March elections.

The CEPR, quoting Haitian lawyers, added that the exclusions were made by the Provisional Electoral Council, whose members were appointed by Preval, according to an email sent to AFP.

The US stepped up Tuesday its withdrawal of some 11,000 troops deployed to help the relief effort and provide security after the disaster, recalling a navy hospital ship. Related article: Haitians wary of US military reduction

Preval underscored that stability was the key to attracting badly-needed foreign investment and suggested Haiti needed to be rebuilt differently with greater economic opportunities for people outside the capital.

"Today, we are faced with a historical situation that will allow us to rebuild, refound this country," he said.

"In the past, everything had been concentrated and focused on the capital, where the political and economic elites of the country live, and the rest of the country was neglected.

"That's why so many people came to Haiti, into Port-au-Prince, in the illusory quest for work that did not exist, and that is why there is so much shoddy construction, which does not comply with standards, and that is why there were so many casualties."

Clinton said the United States has provided nearly 700 million dollars in assistance so far to Haiti, adding "progress has been made but not nearly enough" toward easing the suffering of the Haitian people.

She said US officials are "listening very carefully to President Preval and the voices of the Haitian people as to what our next steps should be," ahead of an international donors conference at the end of the month.

Clinton promised US help in ensuring that homeless Haitians get the shelter they so desperately need before the rainy season begins in earnest in a few months.

She highlighted the need to provide farmers with fertilizer and seeds and suggested that other countries join the US in extending favorable tariffs to Haiti to boost struggling Haitian factories.