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 Rene Preval’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 Washington.

“In part it’s because under Rene Preval, 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.”

Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune