HAITI ON EDGE AMID DISPUTED ELECTION RESULTS
(NPR) - By Jason Beaubien
A political standoff continues in Haiti after the disputed Nov. 28 presidential election. Election officials have announced that they will recount the votes, and they have extended an appeals process for candidates who failed to make it into the Jan. 16 runoff.
Two of the top three vote-getters, however, say they are refusing to participate in the recount, citing "massive fraud" at the polls.
Last week, riots shut down Port-au-Prince. This week, a tense calm has settled on the streets of the Haitian capital.
"Stuck. We are stuck. We are at an impasse," says Richard Widmaier, head of the independent media company Radio Metropole, summing up the state of Haiti's presidential selection process.
Musician At Center Of Impasse
The elections disintegrated into chaos on Nov. 28 when, after the polls had only been open for a few hours, 12 of the 18 presidential candidates called for the voting to be canceled. The candidates accused the ruling party of rigging the election in favor of its own candidate, Jude Celestin.
When the preliminary results were released last week, 70-year-old Mirlande Manigat, a law professor and former first lady, emerged as the front-runner.
Supporters of third-place finisher Michel Martelly barricaded the streets of the capital for three days straight. Martelly finished just behind Celestin in the official results, and thus was eliminated from the second round of the race.
"Six months ago, nobody ever thought Martelly would have any importance within the electoral process itself," Widmaier says.
The 49-year-old musician known as "Sweet Micky" is now at the center of the political impasse.
Martelly is proposing that instead of a runoff on Jan. 16, as currently mandated by law, Haiti should just redo the entire election. But Martelly says that first, the Electoral Council should be fired. "We don't trust those people anymore," he said in Creole. And he added that the council has lost the trust of the Haitian people.
So far, President Rene Preval has stood by his election officials and hasn't made any indication that he'll appoint new ones.
Last week's raging protests left at least two people dead, dozens injured and the streets littered with burned tires. Almost all shops and businesses were closed for three days.
The capital remains on edge, with many people expecting the riots to resume.
Preval has defended the election results and called for calm.
On Sunday, during Mass at the Catholic Christ the King Church, the Rev. Richard Gerard denounced the violent demonstrations. Preaching in the shell of a grand church that was destroyed in the January earthquake, Gerard said Jesus never rioted in the streets.
"How can we say that we are children of God, that we have been created in his image, while acting like animals of the forest?" he said.
Accusations Of Fraud
This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is "frustrated" with the Haitian government over the elections. She warned that Congress may cut international aid to the Preval regime if it fails to ensure the credibility of the polls.
In Haiti, allegations of fraud and criticism of the balloting can be heard across the social spectrum, from vendors in the streets to business leaders.
"The Haitian people, that's all they have as their weapon. They don't have economic power.
They don't have social power. They have their ballot," says Reginald Boulos, the head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce.
Boulos says exit polls conducted by the Chamber of Commerce clearly showed that Martelly, rather than the ruling party's Celestin, should have made it into the runoff.
Boulos says he is saddened that in the aftermath of the earthquake, Haiti is now also dealing with this political crisis.
"We were expecting that everybody, including our government, would remember that 300,000 people died 10 months ago, would remember that 1 million people are still living under tents, and not do what we are seeing right again, trying to steal elections and not letting the people choose who they want as their leaders for the next five years," he says.
He says that the next president is going to have to make some extremely difficult decisions about how to rebuild the country. Boulos says it's more important than ever that that person has the support of the Haitian people.
But for now, it is unclear how the next president is going to be chosen.