Monday, February 07, 2011

Destroyed Haiti to Have Presidential Runoff while Baby Doc and Aristide Rumors Swirl

Photo by John Carroll

February 6, 2011

Just 2 Candidates, but Worries for Haiti’s Runoff

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Mirlande Manigat walks and speaks with the slow grace of a sophisticated grandmother. She keeps a series of expensive pens in a glass case on her desk.

Michel Martelly struts. A popular Carnival performer who is 21 years Ms. Manigat’s junior, he is best known for drawing young people into politics, and dropping his pants on stage.

The stylistic contrast between the two candidates competing in the March 20 runoff to become Haiti’s next president could not be more stark. Yet their differences may be the only predictable elements in the homestretch of a race that has sowed more doubt than faith.

The Nov. 28 election, marred by fraud and incompetence, was just the beginning of an opaque process that has included delayed results, contentious protests by Mr. Martelly’s supporters, a review by international observers, and finally last week, after a visit from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a reversal by election officials that put Mr. Martelly in the runoff by discarding a government-backed candidate.

Now many Haitians and experts worry that the second round will be just as rough.

“I’m pessimistic, considering the state the country is now in and the effort of transcendence that Haiti needs to really become engaged in reconstruction,” said Michèle D. Pierre-Louis, the former prime minister who now heads the Open Society Institute in Haiti. “Unless there is something which I can’t foresee, we’re heading toward major problems.”

In a nation devastated by an earthquake early last year, with tens of thousands of displaced people still living in tent cities, the challenges are both structural and political. Will the problems with disenfranchisement in Round 1, when only 28 percent of the electorate voted, be improved in the runoff? Will turnout be high enough to give the winner a mandate, or will the loser take his or her cause to the streets?

President René Préval is another wild card. No one here seems sure whether he will hand over power on Monday, as he had promised, or stay on through the runoff. There is also the possibility of a jack-in-the-box surprise if he grants the recent passport request of his mentor, the deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Despite such open questions, a smooth transition is still possible, said Mark L. Schneider, a Haiti expert at the International Crisis Group. But he said that would require a raft of urgent voting reforms and an expanded international role in the runoff.

First, he said, Haitian election officials must fire and replace poll workers at the sites where they know fraud occurred in the first round. He added that the country’s election council, the C.E.P., also needs to accelerate training for poll workers, overhaul how it informs voters where they should vote and create a provisional voting system so that people who are registered but appear at the wrong location can still cast ballots.

Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, which made similar recommendations before the November election, said that the challenge would be to create a better system in time for the runoff. He said that while the O.A.S. planned to expand its corps of international observers to 200 from 120, the bulk of the effort needed to come from within Haiti.

“The important thing is the quality of the workers in the polling places,” he said. “I’m not sure if in 40 days they will be able to do it.”

The O.A.S. review of the election found that intimidation and potential fraud were not limited to Mr. Préval’s party and its candidate, Jude Celestin. Haitian officials, Mr. Insulza said, “will have to work really hard to regain people’s trust.”

Elections officials have said they will try. Richardson Dumel, the C.E.P.’s spokesman, said Saturday that they planned to hold another training session for poll workers. He said they would also add more phone lines that voters could call to find their precinct, and increase the size of the lettering on posted voter lists on Election Day to make them easier to read.

Still, criticism of the process continues to snowball. Several members of Congress, including Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, responded to Mr. Martelly’s advancement by reiterating earlier calls for a do-over, arguing that the election was flawed from the start. At least one of the eight C.E.P. members, Ginette Chérubin, also sent a letter to Haitian news outlets this week saying she and three of her colleagues did not sign on to the decision adding Mr. Martelly to the runoff, casting further doubt on its legitimacy.

On the street, even among the usually engaged, disgust has become conventional wisdom. Thermidor Jon Jerome, 55, a high school French teacher reading at a bookstore in an alley downtown, was one of many who said the foul process had stripped Haiti of its sovereignty and dignity, as the United States and international donors have pressured Haiti to expedite the process. Though he voted in Round 1, he said, “I’m not going to vote in the second round because the next president will be chosen by the United States.”

Young Martelly supporters may be the only ones who are excited. They celebrated in the streets after the announcement on Thursday that Mr. Martelly would advance to the second round, and among a group of Martelly-loving vendors hawking trinkets outside the presidential palace, the mere mention of his name provoked shouts and fist-pumping. “The international community fought for us,” said Samuel Saus, 22, one of the many vendors. “And now we have the result we wanted.”

In terms of policy, Mr. Martelly, 49, and Ms. Manigat, 70, share similar goals; both are conservative and have campaigned on law and order. Haitian analysts said Mr. Martelly appeared to have gained momentum by successfully standing up to Mr. Préval and his handpicked successor.

Ms. Manigat maintains that this is not the case, citing a rally outside Port-au-Prince in November with 45,000 supporters.

But Robert Maguire, a professor of international affairs at Trinity University in Washington, said Mr. Martelly’s rebel reputation, confirmed by protests that helped changed the result, may fit the moment. “I’d think that irreverence would be attractive to youth who have grown up to become disillusioned with the political and economic establishment,” Mr. Maguire said.

Pinnson Sévère, 25, standing near business books just a few steps from Mr. Jerome, the French teacher, said that was exactly right. “This is the time to take a chance,” said Mr. Sévère, a college student who voted for Mr. Manigat in the first round, but now plans to vote for Mr. Martelly. “The country is completely destroyed so it’s a new Haiti, and we want a new kind of person.”

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