by Garry Pierre-Pierre
PORT-AU-PRINCE — On Monday, Haitians awoke with their hopes for a smooth transition to a new government dashed by a series of missteps and miscalculations that left the outcome on hold.
After widespread complaints by voters who said they either couldn’t find their names on the voting lists or were coerced into voting for a candidate who was not their choice, opposition parties called for the cancellation of the vote. In a rare show of unity, a dozen candidates made the demand Sunday during a news conference at the Karibe Convention Center in Pétion-Ville, a suburb of the capital.
But a few hours later, Michel Martelly, an entertainer better known as Sweet Micky, demanded that he be named president. Martelly, who emerged as the overwhelming favorite in the final stretch, ran a brilliant campaign and confounded the political class, who saw his candidacy as quixotic.
Hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, who was barred from running for president, quickly joined forces with Martelly as they crisscrossed the metropolitan area demanding fair results, which would mean declaring him the winner. Charles Baker, another candidate, also joined the duo. “I couldn’t have Wyclef, but I’ll take Martelly,” chanted a crowd of about 500 people near the Karibe Center during an impromptu march. “I’m sick and tired of the status quo.”
Martelly, who promised to keep his supporters on the streets, called the elections an electoral coup d’état and said he will contest the results if he is not declared the winner.
If the outcome of the vote is clouded, what is clear is that the people are frustrated with the administration of René Préval on two main fronts: his failure to provide leadership after the January earthquake and his inability to bring Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to Haiti. Aristide left Haiti in 2004 in disputed circumstances. He claimed he was kidnapped and forced into exile; opponents say he fled mobs that had turned against him.
When Préval was elected in 2006, the masses that still adored Aristide thought they were voting for the exiled president’s clone and that Aristide would make a triumphant return to the troubled Caribbean nation.
And so bitterness against Préval grew. It reached a boiling point after the Jan. 12 earthquake that left 300,000 dead and millions homeless. Préval made few public speeches and showed little emotion. Encampments have become somewhat permanent nearly a year later. “I urged him to be in the eye of the storm, show some emotions, connect with people,” said a former cabinet minister. “But he didn’t listen. He listens to no one. This is sad.”
What is also sad is the “shellacking” that Préval’s handpicked candidate, Jude Celestin, suffered on Sunday. Scores of people interviewed in a dozen voting stations said emphatically that they were voting for change and they were frustrated with Préval. Many said that they would be voting against whomever he endorses.
“I don’t want them at all,” said a man at a voting poll at Lycée Toussaint, referring to Celestin and Préval. “I’ve been to at least four centers looking for my name, and at each one I can’t find my name. But you know what? I am not going to stop. I can’t let them govern me anymore.”
Celestin’s yellow-and-green posters and banners blanketed the capital city and the countryside. Bankrolled by a $2 million war chest, he won the endorsement of roots and kompa bands. Musicians wrote ditties for Celestin and recorded endorsement messages that filled the airwaves up until Friday, the last day that candidates were legally allowed to campaign.
But Celestin’s personal foibles and educational background became campaign issues — he is alleged to have fathered 13 children with eight different women and apparently didn’t attend the Swiss engineering school from which he claimed a degree — and Martelly emerged as the favorite son as the other candidates fizzled.
A week ago, polls showed former first lady Mirlande Manigat with a steady lead over the other 18 presidential candidates. Celestin was in second place, with Jean-Henry Ceant and Martelly behind. But many political experts had questioned these numbers because Manigat, a political scientist and eminent intellectual, did not appear to connect with the urban poor, who are the core of Haitian politics.
“What tanked her is that Martelly publicly accused her of taking money and matériel from Préval,” said Claude Roumain, a longtime political operative who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2006. “That’s not true. But you know it doesn’t matter for the people.”
Roumain said that Préval’s bitterest of opponents have called for his arrest or exile for fraud and other misdeeds. That has shaken the lame-duck president, who has repeatedly said that he has no intentions of living in exile.
International observers estimated that fewer than 30 percent of the 4 million people registered actually voted on Sunday. About 200,000 people of voting age died during the earthquake, and another half a million are estimated to have left Haiti since then. Thousands have left in the last week to avoid the anticipated violence. The U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince urged American citizens to leave the country before the vote.
Still, the Provisional Electoral Council, or CEP in French, declared the vote a “success” and said that the results will be released within a week or so, as scheduled. “We’re going to look in a case-by-case the places where there were problems,” said Pierre-Louis Opent, the CEP executive director. “In 48 to 72 hours, we will decide what to do. During the voting fever of the day, some voters didn’t find their voting stations.”
Holding these elections, which cost roughly $30 million, has been a source of contention. Many wanted a provisional government instead of a vote when it was clear that the vote would be marred by logistical and other operational problems involving many of the schools and other buildings used as voting stations. The voting ranks had also been decimated because of death and departure after the earthquake.
But with more than $10 billion pledged for reconstruction, most foreign governments want a legitimately elected government to work with and rebuild the destroyed capital city. Now, after the vote, it is unclear who will partner with the foreigners who want to help.