Haiti's Long, Drawn-Out Presidential Election

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Ramon Espinosa / AP

Haitians in Port-au-Prince vote in the country's presidential runoff on March 20, 2011

Sunday's presidential runoff in Haiti had been billed as the most important in the country's history. It came 14 months after the earthquake that devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, with international donors hesitating to fund crucial construction projects under the lame-duck presidency of René Préval. The long run-up has had its share of drama: the return of two former rulers of the country, archenemies Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide; a cholera outbreak; and the disqualification of Préval's anointed heir from the runoff. The two contenders on the ballot are interesting if not particularly inspiring: popular singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, who is infamous for dropping his pants during performances, and constitutional-law expert Mirlande Manigat, a former First Lady of Haiti.

There was anxiety, however, about fraud and violence. The first round of voting in January had been marred by allegations of vote rigging in favor of Préval's candidate. Three Manigat supporters had been shot while they were putting up posters of their candidate. And, during a rally in the central plateau city of Mirebalais, Martelly supporters threw stones at the 70-year-old Manigat while she was addressing a crowd. Then, on Saturday night, a report that Martelly supporter (and former presidential wannabe) Wyclef Jean had been shot sent alarms through the celebrity press — but the music superstar had received a minor wound in his hand and was not kept in the hospital. He had been grazed by a bullet fired at random off the streets of Port-au-Prince. No one appeared to know the identity of the shooter — or if Jean had been the target.

And so some Haitians approached March 20 with trepidation. At Cité Soleil, there was a hoard of voters crowded outside an elementary school, skimming the printed registration list with their index fingers, waiting. Some had arrived as early as 6 a.m., which is when polls officially opened. But the U.N. peacekeeping force (Minustah) in charge of delivering election materials was late and voting didn't get under way until a few hours later. Nonetheless, once the ballots arrived, the process proved orderly, though a few voters here and there could not find their names on the registration lists.

And that seemed to be the atmosphere in most of the country. Radio reports from places like the central plateau city of Hinche and the northern city of Port-de-Paix appeared to indicate that incidents of violence were minimal or nonexistent. The streets of Port-au-Prince exhibited a steady, calm flow of Sunday traffic.

Martelly handed in his ballot at the Lyceé National in the suburban city of Pétionville, where he has a strong, young following. Hundreds gathered outside the high school chanting the candidate's name while Haitian police officers and Minustah peacekeepers set up barricades to contain the excitement. Meanwhile, in the Delmas 18 area of the capital, Manigat voted, dressed in her signature skirt suit and pearls. If elected, she would be Haiti's first elected female President. (Haiti's first woman head of state was Chief Justice Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, who became the country's provisional President after a 1990 coup d'état.)

Recent polls showed that Martelly was ahead by a few percentage points but some observers believed that Aristide's return might tip the vote in favor of whomever he seemed to like. However, Aristide, who remains popular among the poor, did not make any overt endorsement. Both Martelly and Manigat have had political differences with the controversial priest turned politician. There will be a long wait for a winner. Preliminary election returns are to be released on March 31 with the final results being published on April 16.

The first round of voting proved to be chaotic. Only 20% of Haiti's 4.7 million eligible voters actually cast ballots — not because of a low turnout but because they were essentially disenfranchised. Polling agents turned away many voters because their names weren't on registration lists, in part a legacy of the disarray resulting from the earthquake, in part the consequence of a traditionally inefficient voting system.

U.N. Development Programme project manager for elections Lourdes Gonzalez says technical improvements have been made so voters can now find their polling stations. The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) increased the capacity of its information call centers and provided more specific addresses of voting centers on its website. Also, a new telecommunications service allows Haitians to text their electoral identification number to a toll-free number and instantaneously receive a reply with their voting-center location. According to Maarten Boute, CEO of the phone company Digicel Haiti, his firm received 125,000 of such texts a day. "I think this round is going to go better," says Gonzalez. "There are, of course, elements that we cannot control, but that's the political context. At least we provided all the required support."

Security is another matter. "When a gang of bandits attacks a voting center, the supervisors can't do anything. They aren't armed and the bandits have guns," says Louiner Jean-Marie, director of electoral operations for the CEP. "If the Haitian government doesn't take the lead to guarantee security, Minustah can't intervene." So far, however, reported incidents of voter intimidation have been low.

Fear of fraud is another factor. On hand for election day were 200 independent international observers from the Organization of American States. They have the task of monitoring more than 11,000 polling stations across the country. Voter fraud in previous elections has gotten people talking of a rigged election this time as well. In this round, Gonzalez says ballots that show irregularities will be handled by 16 lawyers hired by the CEP.

How is the bill for all this being handled? A total of $31 million was donated for the two rounds of voting: $15 million from the international donors, $16 million from the U.S.