PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, MAY 30 -- Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, a soft-spoken legal scholar and the only woman on Haiti's Supreme Court, had not dabbled in politics before she accepted the provisional presidency in March.
Friends said she expected to rule only during a brief transition to Haiti's first freely elected civilian president. It has not turned out to be that simple.
Two and a half months after becoming president -- at the behest of civic leaders following popular protests that forced out a military dictator -- Pascal-Trouillot appears mired in the instability of Haitian politics. No date for elections has been set. Her few attempts to assert authority have been ignored or resisted. Some of those who installed her now attack her, and coup rumors, as ever in Haiti, are rampant.
"As a lawyer she thought she could offer her good services and deliver elections," said a European diplomat. "But she got into the mud of Haitian politics and is having a hard time getting out."
Some of the assaults on the new president have come in the form of unsigned magazine articles that attack her personally. Others have been physical. Her sister was the victim of a break-in, and kidnappers reportedly have threatened to abduct her school-age daughter.
For all of the president's travails, some see a promising departure from Haiti's traditional authoritarian politics. After 35 years of dictatorship by the Duvalier family and military officers, Pascal-Trouillot's presidency could represent a step toward a system of checks and balances.
"The president can't just snap her fingers and get things done," said U.S. Ambassador Alvin P. Adams. "It's give and take, a sense of dialogue, a process not seen before in Haiti."
There are signs, though, that Haiti is sliding toward chaos -- signs that have recurred in the four years since Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier fled a popular uprising into exile.
Gunfire is heard in the capital nearly every night and burning-tire barricades are in the streets. Bodies -- bound, beaten, stabbed or shot -- appear on roadsides in the mornings. The bodies sometimes are identified, the culprits almost never.
Many Haitians, who have vivid memories of the bloodbath that derailed the last attempt at free elections in November 1987, do not believe the current violence is random. They see it as a clear warning against elections from anti-democratic elements that in the past were allied with the Duvaliers' dictatorship and whose interests would be threatened by a popularly chosen government.
"The hope is that by stepping up the insecurity, they'll force a choice between anarchy and a return to repression, and that people will opt for repression," said a Haitian economist.
That is the message that appears to be getting through. In interviews here, many Haitians said they would be afraid to vote in the current conditions, even though Pascal-Trouillot has said she hopes elections can be organized by September. The date is supposed to be set soon by an independent electoral council.
Pascal-Trouillot, the fourth president in as many years, was greeted by what seemed to be popular goodwill but she appears to have suffered from the same lack of voter-approved legitimacy that hindered her predecessors.
Pascal-Trouillot's government was ignored when it tried to ban the street sale of contraband liquor and cigarettes. She was practically mum when an army private armed with an automatic weapon commandeered an empty American airlines passenger jet at the airport for three days in early April, then escaped without challenge from fellow troops.
Official profiteering, much of it controlled by the 7,000-man army, has continued. There has been no effort to arrest former Duvalier allies, such as Claude Raymond -- a top-ranking military aide and confidant to both Jean-Claude Duvalier and his father, Francois -- who are widely believed responsible for the election violence in 1987 and at least some of the current unrest.
Critics of Pascal-Trouillot, including some in the group who drafted her to serve as president, contend that she must move to confront some of those problems before fair elections can be held. Without such action, they say, the same Duvalierist forces that torpedoed the voting in 1987 would be free to do so again.
Others, including U.S. Embassy officials, have argued that the president has little political room for maneuver and have lobbied for elections as soon as possible.
They say that electoral violence can be held in check by international observers and that the current army commander, Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham, a centrist who seems committed to democracy, will not acquiesce in a bloodbath as army commanders did in 1987.
Pascal-Trouillot was buoyed by a four-day visit to the United States last week, including a meeting with President Bush and the news that Haiti will receive $13 million in new U.S. aid for the economy and elections.
But upon her return, she immediately faced a showdown with the 19-member Council of State, an advisory body composed of civic and regional representatives with which she has clashed on several occasions. The latest dispute, in which the council says it was not consulted in the appointment of a minister of finance, is a symbol of the difficulties in reaching consensus and exercising power in an arbitrarily appointed government.
"There is no government that can accomplish stability and justice without a base," said the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular Roman Catholic priest who is critical of the president.