PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — With one presidential term behind him and his campaign for a return to power undertaken with reluctance, Rene Preval has made clear he has no illusions about the daunting challenges that lie ahead for the next leader of Haiti.
Torchbearer for the unfulfilled aims of his predecessor and ally, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Preval may be uniquely positioned to re-energize the exiled president's followers in the thwarted mission of empowering the poor and steering this most backward of Western nations out of its historical rut of violence, illiteracy and injustice.
Four days into counting the vote intended to restore elected leadership to chaotic Haiti, Preval appeared likely to win a slight majority in the first-round voting, setting the stage for him to take the reins of this troubled country late next month.
Preval, the son of a well-to-do agrarian family who would appear on the surface to have more in common with the business class that was Aristide's archenemy, was dragged into the race by rural peasants who argued he was their sole hope for economic and political salvation. That has separated the 63-year-old agronomist from more than 30 other willing contenders and cast him as the candidate motivated by aspirations for a more equitable Haiti rather than the mere trappings of power.
As with his first stint as president from 1996 to 2001, a tenure that may have been most notable for the fact he was able to complete it, Preval promised voters little more than an honest effort.
The theme of his low-profile campaign was the tamping down of expectations once raised by Aristide, who served as president before and after Preval's first term.
"I don't want burning tires in the streets. I don't want barricades. I don't want insecurity," he said in an interview before Tuesday's election. "But we will have all that unless we are honest with the people. They have to trust you and know that you respect them enough to tell them the truth. The worst thing a leader can do is lie."
Preval said he agreed to come out of self-imposed retirement from politics in his northern homestead after supporters said he was needed "because I'm not a politician."
What Haiti needs instead of traditional power-hungry and fractious figures, he said, is a dispassionate manager who will recruit the necessary expertise in institution-building to give Haitians faith that they can end a legacy of desperation, which has sent waves of illegal immigrants to U.S. shores and transformed teeming slums into criminal havens.
Trying to achieve social peace, judicial reform, economic growth and efficient use of foreign aid will require technical expertise that Preval said he would seek irrespective of past political affiliations.
With his Lespwa movement unlikely to win a majority in the two-house legislature, Preval, whether he wins outright or after a March 19 runoff, would have to include other political forces in his government to make any progress toward breaking Haiti's centuries-old standoff between rich and poor.
"I have friends in both the bourgeoisie and in Cite Soleil," he said, referring to the long-divided business elite of which he has been a part and the impoverished slum-dwellers who supported Aristide.
Preval has declined to specify political parties or individuals he hopes to bring into his Cabinet, should he win the presidency. But a senior aide who spoke on condition he not be identified said Preval was committed to national reconciliation and would reach out to those among his challengers who have skills vital to rebuilding Haiti.
Preval galvanized the masses by example of his own entrepreneurial success and by declining to disabuse Aristide supporters of their belief that his triumph would pave the way for the exiled populist to return to Haiti.
Preval is the only elected Haitian head of state ever to have served his full term and peacefully left office. He retreated to his family's estate in the northern town of Marmalade, where he organized agrarian cooperatives producing coffee and orange juice, built a school and Internet center and bankrolled a bamboo furniture factory and a 50-piece orchestra.
"When 1,000 peasants came to me on July 27, 2005, and told me I would be a traitor if I didn't agree to be their candidate for president, I had to go along," he said.
Preval said he saw a hunger for change among his fellow Haitians and broad desire to carry out the kind of rural development that transformed his own town of 12,000, but he conceded such success would be difficult to achieve on a national level.
"We won't have success on the magnitude we have in Marmalade," he said. "But it's important to note that the most important ingredient isn't money, it's will, and we have that in abundance."