AS ELECTIONS LOOM, HOW WILL HAITI REACT?
(Miami Herald) - By Jacqueline Charles
The public campaigning for Haitian elections opened with lots of questions and frustrations.
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Public campaigning for Haiti's upcoming elections opened Friday with a musical flair but no clear-cut favorite among the 19 presidential candidates vying to rebuild this earthquake-shattered nation.
A recent poll suggests that the contest is between President René Préval's 48-year-old protégé, Jude Célestin, and Mirlande Manigat, a 69-year-old twice-exiled grandmother and former first lady.
But with 1.5 million Haitians still displaced by the Jan. 12 quake, a crowded field of candidates and Haitians who are numbed by the daily grind of getting by, the only true sentiment at this moment seems to be that people are eager for change.
``We have no government. We only have a bunch of racketeers. A government is a group of people thinking for their country,'' said an unemployed Franky Metellus, 33, who has grown even more disappointed with the Préval government since the quake. ``Look at all of these young people in the streets. They are discouraged. They don't see the future.''
But it is too early to tell how such frustrations and disappointments will play out when Haitians vote in the Nov. 28 legislative and presidential elections. More than 900 candidates are vying for 110 parliamentary seats.
On Friday, the campaign season officially kicked off with a handful of rallies and public debates across the country. Thousands of people took to the streets to listen to music and rara bands with drums and shakers just outside the capital at a rally for konpa music star Michel ``Sweet Micky'' Martelly.
He led a band of pink and white-clad supporters on foot through the muddy streets of the capital, from the downtown Champs des Mars tent city to the Fontamara community, just south of Martissant.
Still, what should be a defining moment in a nation struggling to rebuild, may prove to be a time of apathy as Haitians -- traumatized by disaster fatigue, promises undelivered and governance unrealized -- simply stay home.
With little to distinguish candidates as far as programs go, many voters like Leo Pierre, 43, remain unenthusiastic and even cynical.
``I have voted so much and nothing has been realized. I don't know if I will vote,'' he said as he worked at a construction site in the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood.
``People are tired with the government. They are not excited about the elections,'' said Daly Valet, publisher and editor-in-chief of Le Matin, a local newspaper. ``You get the impression it's a boxing match where the spectators are tired, the boxers are tired and there is nothing new to show.''
A recent, though controversial poll, of 6,000 prospective voters countrywide showed Manigat in the lead with 16.7 percent, dropping six percentage points from a similar survey taken weeks earlier by the same polling firm. Célestin, the former head of the government reconstruction agency, was next with 13 percent -- a 5 percentage point increase from his previous sixth position.
Martelly with 12.5 percent was also among candidates who polled in the top tier.
Yet one of the the most telling statistics was the percentage of voters who either were refusing to vote for any candidate, 14.8 percent, or who said they didn't know any of them, 7.5 percent.
The poll, which was taken Sept. 19-27, was commissioned by the business community and aimed at showing which candidates enjoyed name recognition among voters. It had a margin of error of 1.27 percent.
Observers say that the high percentage of ``undecided'' voters and the low percentages received by leading candidates speak to the lack of excitement.
``This is a low-profile election with low-profile candidates,'' Valet said.
But Steven Benoit, a one-time Préval supporter and former member of the lower chamber now running for one of 11 Senate seats believes ``people will go out to vote because they are frustrated.
``It is really obvious that this government has failed,'' he said. ``I truly believe these elections will be a negative report against INITE [Préval's UNITY political coalition], and I am expecting a large turnout.''
Still, some in the opposition continue to call for an election boycott even as their parliamentary candidates increasingly participate in the electoral process.
With the opposition fragmented and most candidates lacking financing, the candidates Préval supports enjoy a considerable advantage. And that worries people like Valet as Haiti's rubble-strewn streets become dominated by life-size green and yellow INITE billboards featuring a smiling Célestin.
``The democratic process has been kidnapped by money,'' Valet said. ``There are no rules to control the flow of money, no rules to control access to public and state-funded media.''
Concerns over the integrity of the voting process also persist. Last week, 45 members of the U.S. Congress, including South Florida Democrats Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alcee L. Hastings, signed a letter urging U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ensure Haiti's elections are ``free, fair, and inclusive,'' because ``allowing flawed elections now will come back to haunt the international community later.''
The group raised concerns about access to voting cards -- there is just one machine in the entire country to print cards -- and the possible shortage of polling stations since many were destroyed in the quake.
They also criticized the exclusion of candidates from former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas political party and several others.
Fanmi Lavalas is barred because Aristide, head of the party for life, is the only one who can sign off on allowing the party to participate, election officials said, and he is in exile in South Africa.
Still, there are at least six Lavalas candidates in the presidential race, including former Aristide Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and Minister of Haitians Living Abroad Leslie Voltaire, and Yves Cristallin, Fanmi Lavalas co-founder and former Préval minister of Social Affairs.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said the department will look into the congressional group's concerns.
``What's important is the Haitian people want democracy. There are a few who want disorder, but the Haitian people know where their interests lie,'' Préval told The Miami Herald recently.
Last week, hundreds of candidates attended an information session with electoral officials, who drummed in a message that they are committed to fair and transparent voting and are concerned about possible fraud and violence.
Manigat said she believes Haiti can pull off ``acceptable elections'' despite the challenges. Her husband, former President Leslie Manigat, finished a controversial second to Préval in 2006.
``Whatever intentions they did have to steal the elections, they cannot do it this year,'' she told The Miami Herald. ``It will be more complicated. The international community wants elections and they want them to be correct, honest.''
Some in the international community are already preparing themselves for the possibility the election may be contested.
One area of concern is the impact of the tens of thousands of voters who died in the quake.
While photos and ID cardnumbers on polling station registers will make it difficult for the dead to vote, they cannot be purged from the voters' list without a death certificate.
Still, the vote on the last Sunday in November will be the first competitive election since 1990 with candidates strong enough to force a presidential runoff.