PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Marc Bazin, a Haitian politician whose crusading stint as a graft-busting finance minister earned him the sobriquet "Mr. Clean," these days is a presidential candidate in elections scheduled for late this year.

A couple of weeks ago, Bazin held a rally in St. Marc, his hometown, about 50 miles north of here. His aides predicted a turnout of 30,000 election-hungry Haitians.

Barely 2,000 people showed up, many of them bused in from the capital by Bazin's forces. The enthusiasm was as thin as the crowd. And Bazin, better versed in international finance than in the hand-to-mouth lives of most Haitians, appeared awkward with his T-shirt and stilted Creole.

After four years of dashed hopes for a transition to democracy, the elections now scheduled for December are beginning to look like a party that could flop for want of revelers.

Haitian leaders and foreign observers are pressing President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot's weak provisional government and the unruly army to defend the electoral process against the potent antidemocratic forces left over from 29 years of Duvalierist rule. But the president and the army have balked.

The likely result, many Haitian and foreign observers predict, is that nearly five years after dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier fled Haiti, the country's aspirations to democracy again will be stymied.

Louis Roy, president of the government's Council of State, said, "The population is just not ready to go to the polls unless their demands for justice and security are met."

The elections, originally scheduled for Nov. 4, have been put off until Dec. 9 or Dec. 16 by the Electoral Council. Voter registration is to begin Oct. 5.

The 22-day registration period will be a crucial test of people's stomach for going through with elections in a climate of violence. The stakes, many Haitians and foreign diplomats say, have never been higher.

With the nation's economy in ruin and political anarchy deepening, foreign donors and relief organizations have been hesitant to increase their aid until elections produce a new government that has at least the veneer of legitimacy. Without an infusion of foreign aid, Haiti, one of the world's most destitute nations, is likely to remain economically moribund.

A debate is underway about how many -- or rather, how few -- of Haiti's 3 million eligible voters would have to register to give the elections a fighting chance at respectability.

The number is important because a small turnout could be more easily manipulated or intimidated by the army or the remnants of the Duvalier militia, the Ton-tons Macoutes, and other Duvalierist forces.

"If you get a government selected without great participation, it'll be a weak government constantly under threat of a military coup," said Victor Benoit, head of a social democratic political party.

Almost no one predicted the registration would come close to the 1987 total, when some 2.2 million people, about 70 percent of those eligible, signed up. In the elections of Nov. 29, 1987, enthusiastic crowds mobbed the polls until gunmen attacked voting stations, killing 34 people waiting to vote. The military rulers canceled the elections.

Two months later, the army ran its own elections and installed a civilian president. He was overthrown a short while later, and two military governments followed. The last military ruler, Gen. Prosper Avril, fled the country in March. He was replaced by Pascal-Trouillot.

Since the 1987 vote, little has occurred to convince most Haitians that the results of another election would be different. The excitement of the 1987 campaign seems to have given way to resigned fatalism among many Haitians. "Elections?" said Pierre Beaufort, a pharmacist's assistant in the capital. "That just means more people get killed. What's the use?"

The two men who are widely blamed for the 1987 violence remain in Haiti, and neither has been seriously challenged by prosecutors or the police, which are a branch of the army. One is Claude Raymond, a former army chief of staff and interior minister under the Duvalier dictatorships. The other is Williams Regala, a former brigadier general and junta member at the time of the scuttled election.

Both have been moving about openly, and Raymond, who bristles at the suggestion that he was involved in the 1987 violence, even proclaims he will be a candidate for president, despite a constitutional ban on Duvalier's associates running for office.

"The whole constitution is an aberration," Raymond said in an interview, referring to the document approved by more than 90 percent of voters in a 1987 referendum. "It's not adapted to Haitian reality."

Like other stalwarts of Duvalierism, Raymond has special contempt for the Electoral Council, an independent branch of government. He charged that it is not interested so much in holding elections as in "imposing its own solution." He did not elaborate.

Another figure notorious in the Duvalier years as the de facto leader of the Ton-tons Macoutes, Roger Lafontant, returned to Haiti July 7 after a four-year exile. "I'm here for good and the only way I'll leave is in a coffin," he announced, according to Haiti Insight, a New York-based newsletter for Haitian refugees.

Lafontant is described by many observers here as potentially the greatest threat to elections. A shrewd politician with well-placed allies in the army, he has circulated literature promoting his candidacy for the presidency.

An arrest warrant was issued for Lafontant for plotting against the security of the state. But the army has taken no steps to arrest him, explaining that he cannot be found.

The army also has resisted pressure from U.S. diplomats to take steps against its most brutal and corrupt provincial commanders. The most abusive presidential guardsmen for former president Avril, who fled the country in March, were expelled from the army rather than arrested, meaning that they are now no longer subject to prosecution by either the military or civilian courts.

Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham, who was regarded a few months ago as a new breed of Haitian military officer committed to democratic reform, is now widely considered part of the problem. "His inaction is a clear strategy," said one diplomat. "He knows that by {his} doing nothing, the voting process and enthusiasm will never get off the ground."

Diplomats warn that derailing elections would be a simple matter: a drive-by shooting of the Electoral Council or a grenade lobbed at one of the political parties might suffice.

For that reason, Roy, Benoit and other political leaders are demanding that Lafontant, Regala, Raymond and others be arrested or exiled for the duration of the campaign. Without such moves, they say, the elections cannot go forward. They support a plan to replace Pascal-Trouillot, who took office as provisional president just six months ago, with another interim government pledged to move against such powerful Duvalierists.

Many diplomats agree that the Duvalierists should be brought to justice or somehow neutralized during the campaign. But installing a new interim government to carry out the arrests is no guarantee of success, diplomats say.

"A new government is a recipe for either a bloodbath or more procrastination," said one envoy. "You can't waste a lot of time trying to find purity in people who are only going to be in office a short time anyway."

At the same time, many warn of the consequences if Pascal-Trouillot's government -- the fifth Haiti has had since Duvalier fled in February 1986 -- fails to deliver clean elections.

"If this doesn't work," said Reinhart Helmke, chief United Nations representative in Haiti, "then a gradual approach from an authoritarian regime to a democratic regime will no longer be possible."