From stray bullets whizzing through slums, kidnappings, suffocating poverty and a stagnant economy, Haitians have seen little but troubled times for decades.

But on Tuesday, the country will host a long-delayed election, aimed at restoring democracy, two years after a bloody revolt ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the nation's elected president, who is now in exile in South Africa.

Two former presidents, a wealthy businessman and an ex-rebel are among three dozen presidential candidates running in the election, which is being held under the protection of UN peacekeepers and is deemed crucial to lifting Haiti from its deepening cycle of misery and doom.

Tim Carney, the top US diplomat in the country, said in an interview: "The future of Haiti is at stake. It's long past time that Haiti moved into the modern world."

Rene Preval, an agronomist who led Haiti from 1996 to 2001 and is the only elected Haitian president to ever finish his term, is the front-runner, according to opinion polls.

Electoral process

If no one wins a majority, a 19 March runoff will be held between the top two finishers. Voters will also choose among hundreds of candidates to fill 129 legislative seats.

The son of a former government official, Preval has vowed to crack down on criminals blamed for spreading terror in the capital, Port-au-Prince. But the shy, soft-spoken candidate is coy on whether he'd welcome back his one-time ally, the exiled Aristide.

Much of the gritty capital was plunged into chaos after Aristide, a former slum priest and Haiti's first democratically elected president, fled amidst a rebel uprising in February 2004.

Leading candidates

Rene Preval, 63: ex-president and frontrunner

Charles Henry Baker, 50: wealthy industrialist

Leslie Manigat, 75: ex-president, two decades in exile

Guy Philippe, 37: ex-rebel leader who was involved in ousting Aristide

Kidnappers roam Port-au-Prince snatching victims for ransom, and gunfire still rings daily inside squalid, densely populated slums where well-armed street gangs clash with the blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers.

Business leaders have called on peacekeepers to crack down on the gangs, but Preval says he wants to start a dialogue with the gangsters, some of whom are allegedly aligned with Aristide.

"There's no military solution" to the problem, Preval said. "We must negotiate."

Experts say elections are vital to improving life in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

Elections  - if deemed free and fair, and if the results are accepted by the candidates as well as ordinary Haitians - could embolden rich nations to increase aid money needed to rebuild Haiti's shattered infrastructure and spur investment.

Fears of violence

Fears of election-day violence loom heavy among Haitians who remember a 1987 bloodbath in which soldiers opened fire on voters waiting to cast ballots in the Caribbean nation's first free elections. Some Haitians say the chance to choose a new government isn't worth the risk.

[Aristide himself, who still commands the backing of some loyal militia in Haiti, has pledged no inteference]

A 9000-strong UN force of troops and police will try to keep the peace during on Tuesday's vote.

The UN has deployed a 9000-
strong force for the vote

Leslie Manigat, who was president for five months in 1988 after winning elections rigged by the military, is seen as the candidate favoured by much of the private sector.

The army ousted Manigat, an international affairs expert, when he tried to shake up its high command.

Also vying for the presidency are Charles Henri Baker, who owns several assembly plants, and Guy Phillippe, a boyish-looking, 37-year-old ex-paramilitary, who was among those involved in deposing Aristide.

Haiti, once the richest colony in the Americas, has been impoverished since a series of corrupt military and civilian dictators began ruling the country in 1804, when the world's only successful slave rebellion forced out French colonisers.