Front-running presidential candidate Rene Preval on Tuesday asserted that he has emerged from the shadow of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, his former mentor who fled Haiti amid a rebellion and accusations of corruption.
"I don't want to be compared with Aristide or with anybody else. I want to be compared with myself," Preval told reporters in the first interview he has given since he declared himself a candidate.
Elections, set for Feb. 7, have been postponed several times because of organizational problems and violence. There was more bloodshed on Tuesday as gunmen shot and killed two Jordanian UN peacekeepers and wounded a third in the Cite Soleil slum, a stronghold of Aristide supporters. It was the bloodiest day for the 9,000-member peacekeeping force since being deployed in June 2004.
Preval was elected president in 1995 and served until 2001.
Many Haitians fear that if Preval wins the presidency again he will bring back Aristide from exile in South Africa. Preval, who turned 63 on Tuesday, insisted he will govern without being influenced by Aristide.
Aristide was Haiti's first democratically elected leader since the Caribbean country won independence from France in 1804, but was accused of masterminding attacks by armed gangs and breaking promises to the poor. Aristide has denied both.
Preval, a reclusive agronomist, appeared relaxed and confident during the 90-minute interview in an upscale house belonging to one of his supporters.
But he expressed concern about the effects of Haiti's violence. Pointing out the electrified wire and high walls surrounding the house, Preval said: "Fear has isolated everybody."
Since the February 2004 rebellion, the situation in the Western hemisphere's poorest nation has not improved despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force charged with providing security and ushering in elections to restore democracy.
A wave of kidnappings have engulfed Haiti's capital, snaring ordinary Haitians as well as international election workers and journalists.
The UN troops killed on Tuesday were the eighth and ninth peacekeepers to die in action since the force was deployed. The top commander of the peacekeeping force was found dead in his hotel on Jan. 7, an apparent suicide.
Preval said the UN mission "should stay as long as it is necessary" to re-establish security.
"Those who don't want stability are opposed to democracy," he said.
Preval said that if he wins the election, he will pick up from where he left off in 2001.
In his 1996 inaugural address, Preval promised to turn Haiti into "a vast construction site" and "re-establish the authority of the state."
He now acknowledges that he failed. But he said he struggled against corruption and successfully privatized the state-run flour mill and cement factory.
"We didn't steal and we didn't violate human rights," he said, declining to comment on the allegations against Aristide.
Preval had been closely associated with Aristide since the fall of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 and was named premier after the slum priest was elected president in 1990. Aristide referred to him as his "twin."
Preval followed Aristide into exile after a bloody 1991 coup and returned to Haiti during the US military intervention that restored Aristide to power in 1994.