BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Five years after he fled into exile amid a bloody revolt, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is continuing to cast a long shadow over Haiti's political landscape.
His reemergence as a central figure in Haiti's political future comes as the once all-powerful Fanmi Lavalas political party seems to be imploding amid an internal power struggle over which competing faction has the right to lead in Aristide's absence.
The internal dispute boiled over into Haiti's larger political debate last month when Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council -- presented with two competing slates of Lavalas candidates for the upcoming April 19 parliamentary elections -- disqualified all 16 office-seekers from across the country who had registered for the 12 senate seats under the Lavalas banner.
The electoral council's explanation for the disqualifications: According to Lavalas bylaws, the party's national representative -- Aristide -- must sanction candidates.
Others, including some Lavalas leaders, disagree. They say the council's ruling is a pretext to keep the party, which boycotted the 2006 presidential and legislative elections, from getting a foothold in President René Préval's government.
The matter has confused and confounded even loyal Lavalas supporters, who have publicly criticized each other.
The election exclusion has placed Aristide at the crux of the debate, and stirred concerns within the international community that banning Haiti's most popular and biggest political party from the vote could lead to contested elections and provoke a repeat of the political crisis that led to the 2004 rebellion and Aristide's ultimate departure to South Africa.
''Throughout Haiti's history, Haiti has had leaders who have either fled or been placed in exile. It seems to me that Aristide's shelf life is surprising everybody, compared to what has happened with other leaders,'' said Robert Maguire, U.S. Institute of Peace Jennings Randolph senior fellow and director of the Haiti Study Program at Trinity University.
''In part it's because under René Préval, you've had improvements in security and kind of less-overt political conflicts. But you haven't had improvements in people's personal and economic well-being,'' Maguire said. ``For some in Haiti, Aristide apparently still holds promise.''
On Saturday, several thousand Aristide supporters blanketed the streets of Port-au-Prince to commemorate the five-year anniversary of his ouster.
As they chanted and waved signs demanding his return from exile in Pretoria, South Africa, 7,393 miles away, they also for the first time added a new request: the inclusion of Fanmi Lavalas in the April elections to fill 12 seats in the 30-member Senate.
The credibility of the elections is of such importance that it is expected to top the agenda of several planned high-profile visits to Haiti in the coming weeks. Among those expected to visit: former President Bill Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and members of the U.N. Security Council.
The fear, say Haiti observers, is that contested elections or those that erupt into violence could negatively affect storm-battered Haiti's efforts to maintain strong and increasing international support for reconstruction, development and governance.
''That is why it's important for this issue to be resolved in a way that most people in Haiti and most observers are comfortable there is going to be an inclusive election,'' said Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit that analyzes conflict in Haiti and elsewhere around the world.
And as the international community pushes for the inclusion of Lavalas, in Haiti, the talk turns to Aristide.
Some have seized on the exclusion explanation offered by the electoral council, known by the French acronym CEP, to demand Aristide's return -- so that he can formally sanction those seeking office under the Lavalas banner.
''It's clear there is more discussion now about Aristide because of the CEP's need to require Aristide to take some action to validate one or another set of candidates,'' said Schneider. ``Were the CEP to recognize the [Fanmi Lavalas] candidates it registered in December, or some other slate, immediately the issue of Aristide would diminish.''
So far, few here know what to make of the squabbling, including whether the elections, which is expected to cost $16 million, will be postponed. Some are hoping that the electoral council, which has yet to order the ballots or come up with a final budget, will reverse itself and allow Lavalas to participate.
But then the question becomes: Which Lavalas?
The party today is being led by at least two factions: One is led by Lavalas Senator Rudy Hériveaux and Aristide spokeswoman Dr. Maryse Narcisse of the Fanmi Lavalas Executive Committee. The other involves a 27-member coalition whose most high-profile supporter is former Aristide Prime Minister Yvon Neptune.
Narcisse, who is reportedly in South Africa meeting with Aristide, has insisted that she has the right to nominate the 12 candidates she registered on behalf of Lavalas.
She also points out she was the first to register her slate and the registration was recognized by the CEP in December. Neptune disagrees, and his group turned in its own list of candidates weeks later. A third faction, led by several Lavalas senators, also handed in a list of candidates.
''This is a very tricky situation,'' Neptune told The Miami Herald.
``On the one hand, the electoral council, and I would even say the government, hasn't been doing what they are supposed to do to accommodate Fanmi Lavalas. At the same time, Fanmi Lavalas has a lot of problems on its own.''
In a wide-ranging interview at his home overlooking the hills of Port-au-Prince, Neptune downplayed his role in the faction, saying he's there as a founding member to help reorganize the splintered party; dismissed the executive committee Aristide reportedly left in charge of Fanmi Lavalas as ''illegal;'' and questioned the motives of Narcisse and others.
But Neptune's critics question his motives and loyalty, viewing him as a traitor to Aristide who helped Canada, France and the U.S. governments put in place an interim government in the wake of Aristide's Feb. 29, 2004, departure.
''I did not stay in office to please anybody or to be utilized by anybody,'' he said, dismissing claims that he was pressured to do the international community's bidding. ``I did what I believed was the proper thing to do so that indiscriminate killings would not happen because that was in the planning. Indiscriminate killings. Indiscriminate burnings.''