by Garry Pierre-Pierre
For the last several weeks, thousands of people have lined up in front of makeshift voter-registration offices in Haiti as they attempt to replace lost registration cards.
The voter rolls, which numbered more than 3 million people, have been depleted as hundreds of thousands of voters either lost their lives or their voter cards in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake in January. So with presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday, officials are hoping for a significant turnout that will strengthen the country’s feeble democracy and deliver a peaceful change of government. At stake are billions of dollars pledged for reconstruction that international donors hope to give to a new democratic administration.
Government officials have not said how many people have registered so far, but they remain confident that turnout will be significant and the elections will be orderly.
A cholera epidemic has complicated the effort to hold elections. Nearly 2,000 have died so far from a disease last seen in Haiti a century ago, and health officials have estimated that 400,000 will be affected by the disease within the next two years.
The international community, most visibly represented by a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, is insisting that the political and security risks of postponing Sunday’s elections are far greater than any current threats of violence or disruption. “It is better to have elections as soon as possible than to delay them,” Edmond Mulet, head of the U.N. mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), told a news conference in Port-au-Prince. “If we don’t have elections now, when? … Are we going to wait a year in Haiti to have elections? What will happen in the meantime? Vacuum of power, uncertainty and chaos?”
Mulet said that the polls to elect a successor to President René Préval, who cannot run again; a new parliament; and a third of the Senate were in line with Haiti’s constitutional electoral calendar. Voting would pose no greater health risk, and perhaps even less, than a normal working day, he said.
Mulet brushed aside calls for postponement from four of the 18 presidential candidates, as well as complaints of pro-government bias against local electoral authorities, saying that the latter had shown themselves to be “up to the task.”
“The elections will not be perfect, will not solve all the problems, but they are a necessary path in the democratization process in Haiti,” the U.N. mission chief said, flanked by the heads of MINUSTAH’s military and police forces.
With several front-runners in the variegated field — just one of the original 19 contenders has withdrawn — analysts see a strong possibility that Sunday’s first-round ballot will not produce a clear winner who has the required absolute majority (more than 50 percent) of votes. This would lead to a runoff in a second round.
Just days before the elections, a clear favorite has still not emerged. Polls have Mirlande Manigat, Jude Celestin, Michel Martelly and Harry Ceant as the leading candidates. Manigat, an academic who was the country’s first lady for a brief five months, has consistently outpolled her opponents despite the fact that Celestin is widely believed to be Préval’s handpicked candidate. He is clearly the most visible aspirant, with his pictures ubiquitous on the capital city’s walls and billboards. Martelly, a singer and bandleader known as Sweet Micky, has found a base of support among the young and disillusioned.
There is a blasé attitude among Haitians who believe that this election will not significantly change their lives. Former Defense Minister Patrick Elie says that he has written off the upcoming polls entirely. “We can’t be pussyfooting around some of the serious problems that we are facing,” he told reporters.
The capital is destroyed, and cholera is spreading more rapidly every day. Elie points out that disputes over land ownership have stifled efforts to move the more than 1 million earthquake survivors out of the vast tent encampments. “Nobody has a solid claim to the land, and the state doesn’t have the balls to simply requisition the land,” Elie says. “We’re going to have to make these choices, hard as they are.”
On Thursday, armed Haitian police kept apart raucous supporters of rival presidential candidates in Port-au-Prince. Sporadic violence, including street clashes between protesters and U.N. peacekeepers in Port-au-Prince and the northern city of Cap-Haitien, has added the stench of burning tires and tear gas to the stink of squalor and disease from overflowing cholera hospitals and earthquake-survivor camps.
Separate marches by backers of Celestin and Martelly clogged streets in the sprawling capital on Thursday, but police armed with shotguns and pistols stopped them from clashing.