PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, JAN. 16 -- Haitians closed down their capital city today in a general strike to protest elections that are widely seen as rigged by the Army-dominated government.

The effectiveness of the strike is being seen as an indicator of how many Haitians will respond to a call by mainstream political leaders and clergymen to boycott the vote Sunday. The election -- for a president, legislature and mayors -- is to create a government to replace the transitional National Government Council that was installed after dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled into French exile nearly two years ago. The election is widely seen as an attempt by the Army to retain power through a figurehead president.

The strike also was highly effective in the south of the country, but less so in some northern areas, according to independent radio reports here.

Foreign journalists who visited areas near the capital reported that the majority of markets and businesses were closed today and that traffic was sharply reduced. In Port-au-Prince, industrial plants at the airport were closed, and a tour of city streets showed that about 90 percent of shops were shuttered.

Army units, including some armored vehicles, were sent to street corners here, but there were no checkpoints, where soldiers and police had searched vehicles for arms in the past two days.

Information Minister Gerard Noel dismissed the strike, telling reporters that "only a few shops are closed. . . . They are serving foreign interest."

Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, who heads both the Army and the government council, appealed in a televised speech last night for Haitians to vote, saying the election would bring political stability and insisting that "the Army {does} not cherish any political ambition."

Seven candidates, generally seen as right of center in Haitian politics, remain in the race after the withdrawal of four moderates and leftists who have criticized the government's control of the election and called for the boycott of the vote. While there are no public opinion polls in Haiti, none of the candidates appears to generate broad popular enthusiasm, and observers agree that the outcome is unpredictable.

Polls open at 6 a.m. Election officials say they will hold a news conference Sunday night, but it is unclear when results will be announced.

Information Minister Noel said the government will provide heavy security for the election.

This week, Haitians expressed fears of violence rising to the level that caused the previously scheduled election on Nov. 29 to be aborted and left dozens dead. However, there are signs of a shift in the right-wing political alignment that was widely believed to be behind the November violence, and this political change may alter the nature of any violence Sunday.

Haiti's political right-wing is vaguely divided into two camps, according to Haitian intellectuals and foreign observers here. One is a privileged group of former Duvalier officials who have profited from the corruption that is endemic to Haitian civil affairs.

These "Duvalierists," as the former associates of the dictator are called, maintain some control over gunmen who are the vestiges of the Ton-Tons Macoutes, the Duvaliers' secret police.

According to foreign observers living here, the Army and government have common interests with the Duvalierists but are opposed to letting civilian Duvalierists take real power, as a number of Duvalierist presidential candidates have sought to do.

In November, it was widely believed that the Army and such candidates as Duvalier's former chief of the Army, Claude Raymond, and former Cabinet minister Clovis Desinor effectively joined to destroy the election, which was expected to produce a moderate or left-of-center president committed to reform.

The Army and government's cooperation with the Duvalierist candidates -- who, according to observers here, have no chance of winning a free election -- was clear in their refusal to facilitate the independently run vote or to stop attacks by Duvalierist gunmen on candidates and election offices.

Sunday's elections, however, do not threaten to empower any substantial rival to the right wing. Rather, the three-man ruling council, which includes Namphy and another top Army officer, has taken control of the election process in what is widely seen as an effort to install what former presidential candidate Marc Bazin called "a marionette president." Bazin and three other mainstream candidates withdrew from the race and have led the campaign to boycott the vote.

The government's electoral board barred the major Duvalierist candidates from Sunday's poll under an article of the constitution. Opposition leaders called the decision a maneuver designed to lend credibility to the election. But the barring, announced by the supreme court yesterday, effectively ends the Duvalierists' hopes of taking formal political power.

The government has reversed its practical stance from that of the November poll. Where it earlier withheld or delayed logistical support -- such as funds, government buildings for polling places and vehicles to transport ballots -- the government is now working to ensure that this vote takes place. Because of the government's thorough support for the election, some observers see a diminished chance for a heavy death toll such as the one on Nov. 29.

"The extent of the violence that day was underreported in the foreign press," said a European resident here. Thirty-four people died in the attacks and were counted in hospitals here, "but my embassy believes the real death toll was closer to 200" in the Port-au-Prince area, he said.