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AT the rate Haiti's military government has been tightening the screws around that nation's Jan. 17 elections, officials might as well cancel it altogether. What was intended as that country's first free democratic election after a 30-year dictatorship is degenerating into a charade. The government failed even to try to stem the violence erupting during the Nov. 29 election. This angered many Haitians and the international community. The government was forced to reschedule the vote. But Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy and his colleagues now decree that anyone urging an election boycott, as top candidates do, risks a fine and imprisonment. No independent observers or reporters - only soldiers - will be allowed into polling places; the government's own election council rather than the independent one specified in the Constitution will supervise. Voters will hand ballots, distributed by the candidates themselves, to polling officials rather than deposit them in boxes. Duvalierist candidates, barred by the Constitution from the race, are expected to be in the running. The list goes on. The result, as it stands, is shameful.

Haiti's rulers are not the first government to take the reins from a dictatorship only to decide that it likes the feel of power. But this government once professed that its only desire was to move Haiti toward democracy. Its current opportunism belies that claim. It insults the intelligence and wishes of Haiti's electorate. General Namphy and his colleagues must be held to their former pledge and to Haiti's Constitution while there is still time.

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