This week’s elections in Haiti confirmed what everyone already knew: a majority of Haitians support Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the authoritarian populist accused of grave human rights abuses who had to go into exile in South Africa after a bloody uprising two years ago. Whether René Préval, who appears to have won the first round with a very big margin, behaves like a protégé of Aristide or not once he is in power is an open question. But the perception of most of those who voted for him or against him (in the latter case by supporting Leslie Manigat or Charles Henri Baker, the white hero of the business elites, out of a pool of more than thirty candidates) is that he is Aristide’s man.

The context in which this has taken place—the U.N. mission known as MINUSTAH based on a multinational, 9,000-strong stabilization force—has something to do with what has happened. That mission has failed to accomplish its purpose and has become a lightning rod for a grassroots revival of Aristide’s followers and for the horrific violence of many of his followers, including the notorious “chimères.” The fact that Aristide’s opponents, known as the bourgeois entrepreneurs, are anything but bourgeois and entrepreneurial—and certainly not democratic or peaceful—has also given Aristide a major boost in the lawless slums of Cité Soleil and Bel-Air.

According to a recent study by Amnesty International, a hospital recorded 1,400 Haitians with bullet wounds in 10 months. 1,500 people have been killed in the last two years. An estimated 10 kidnappings take place every day. Street gangs roam the streets, especially in places like Cité Soleil, terrorizing the population, and each faction seems to have its own radio station. Due to the reigning chaos, the elections had to be postponed four times. The U.N. soldiers and the interim government of President Boniface Alexandre and Primer Minister Gerard Latortue have been unable to disarm Haitians. It doesn’t surprise me that general Urano Bacellar, the former military chief of the U.N. forces, committed suicide a few weeks ago. What is surprising is that he didn’t lose hope a lot earlier.

If Aristide—the former President who left the country in 2004 just as his palace was about to be assaulted by opposing thugs—had planned it all, he couldn’t have done it better. The international mission has failed and his own man, René Préval, who governed the country in between two Aristide administrations, is now the legitimate winner (even if he has to fight a runoff election that will be a mere formality). He has repeatedly said Aristide is free to go back—which, of course, is constitutionally and legally true. However, in order to calm the elites overlooking this chaos from their residences in Piétonville, Preval has also said he will not protect Aristide from criminal investigations if he comes back. But, given the real situation in the streets, what guarantee is this pledge of anything?

The backdrop to this political nightmare is dirt-poor misery and the absence of any law. Haiti was once the wealthiest colony of the New World. So much so that Napoleon entertained wild dreams of using it as the bedrock of a worldwide empire (the black rebel Toussaint Louverture managed to inflict a military defeat on Napoleon a good while before Wellington did him in at Waterloo). Today it is a country with a per capita income of $390 and a population that is 50 percent illiterate. Any attempt at resolving these social tragedies needs to start with the establishment of some very basic institutions in a climate of reasonably peaceful coexistence. And that, precisely, is what the eleven governments that Haiti has had in the last 20 years—that is, since the collapse of Baby Doc’s tyranny—failed to do.

The only president who managed to finish his term is the same guy who came first in Tuesday’s elections. Except that he governed under the shadow of Aristide and was succeeded by him. Of course, Aristide, who had the best shot at founding a new republic—overwhelming popular legitimacy, international support, and an education that should have given him a sense of where to go and where not to go—opted instead for a hallucinatory form of despotism unique even in a hemisphere that is an encyclopedia of despots, behaving like a character in Alejo Carpentier’s famous novel on Haiti, The Kingdom of this World.

Is there a solution? The most important objective—replacing the republic of guns with a republic of laws—is simply not realistic in the near future. The best hope—still a long shot—lies in René Préval obtaining enough personal legitimacy that he may abandon Aristide’s shadow without succumbing to Aristide’s thugs while at the same time keeping the heirs of the Duvalier era at bay. That would allow him to start disarming the various militias and provoke an erosion of their social base.

Is all of this, which ultimately depends on Préval becoming his own man both vis-à-vis Aristide, the elites and the U.N. mission itself, remotely possible? Yes, remotely.