Latin America & Caribbean

Haiti elections trigger tense period of political limbo

A child plays among election ballots at the site of a polling station in Port-au-Prince (29 November 2010)
Image caption The election was characterised by mismanagement and incidents of fraud

On Sunday, two elderly ladies climbed gingerly out of a battered car, helped by young men.

With frail steps, and hanging onto strong arms, the women picked their way across the rubbish-strewn road and into the polling station in a converted school.

The determination of the Haitian people to vote was not in question.

But inside the polling station in central Port-au-Prince there was raw anger.

"I don't know what the hell is going on!" said a distressed woman.

"I can't find my name on the list. I was told on the election telephone helpline that this was my station, but I've looked on every list here and I can't find it."

A man was shouting in a corner of the schoolyard.

"So far I have been to seven polling stations and my name is nowhere to be found!"

Badly organised

Haiti has entered a tense period of political limbo.

The deeply flawed voting process in the first round of the presidential and legislative elections is over.

Image caption The election is seen as crucial to the future of Haiti

Now Haitians have to wait - officially, at least - until 7 December for the preliminary results.

If none of the 18 presidential candidates gets more than 50% of votes cast in the first round, there will be a second round run-off in January for the two frontrunners.

I have observed dozens of elections, most of them in developing countries, and this was one of the worst organised I have ever seen.

None of the Haitians I spoke to blamed the electoral problems primarily on the death and destruction caused by January's earthquake, or the current cholera epidemic.

When I asked what the cause of the problems was, voters looked sympathetically back at the naive foreigner that they took me to be.

Their sad smiles seemed to say: "It's our politics, stupid."

Ballot-box stuffing

Over a period of just an hour on election day, I met a dozen people who could not find their names on voter lists.

Reports on normally-reliable Haitian radio stations said there were thousands of others in the same predicament.

I also watched Haitian police take away a group of supposedly-neutral election workers who had allegedly been ballot-box stuffing in favour of the ruling party's presidential candidate, Jude Celestin.

In retrospect, given the seething crowd around the workers, the police were not so much arresting them as saving them from being lynched.

The radio stations were meanwhile reporting many other cases of ballot-box stuffing around the country.

There were also demonstrations by frustrated voters which caused polling stations to close; disputes over how many political party agents were allowed into stations; and at least two credible reports of shootings.

Flip-flop

In the midst of all this, the head of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (Minustah), Edmond Mulet, said the election was "going well".

Image caption Jude Celestin is said by his supporters to be calmly waiting for the results

Mr Mulet's aides later rowed back on this surprising statement, saying the UN had some "serious concerns".

Around lunchtime on Sunday, most of the opposition presidential candidates trooped into a press conference in a Port-au-Prince hotel to make allegations of fraud.

On stage, watched by a couple of hundred reporters - and as many cheering supporters - were the probable leading opposition figures:

  • Mirlande Manigat, a Sorbonne-educated lawyer and wife of a former president (campaign slogan: "We all agree")
  • Michel "Micky" Martelly, a charismatic, bald pop star (slogan: "The Unstoppable One" - but in the Haitian Creole language the phrase also means "Bald Head")
  • Jean-Henri Ceant, a lawyer and powerful public speaker (slogan: "Love Haiti")

They all called for the elections to be annulled - a call which the audience might have been forgiven for assuming meant they were pulling out.

But just a day later, the two candidates universally known on the streets simply as "Madame Manigat" and "Micky" publicly stated that they were still in the race.

They both came up with complex explanations for their apparent change of position.

But most Haitians disregarded the stated reasons for the flip-flop - and guessed the two now thought they had a chance of winning.

'U-turns'

Not present at the boisterous opposition news conference, of course, was Mr Celestin, an engineer and businessman who runs a big para-statal company.

Image caption Michel Martelly said the opposition protest had stopped a government plan to steal the vote

He rarely holds news conferences, and despite several attempts I was not able to meet him.

After the flawed voting process, the candidates sought to flex their muscles and project their power.

Mr Martelly gave a press conference in a Barack Obama-style designer suit - with a pretty palm-fringed backdrop for the TV cameras, no doubt carefully chosen by his Spanish PR man.

"We don't want Jude Celestin in Haiti any more," he said - helpfully for reporters - in Creole, French and English.

With Mr Celestin said by his supporters to be calmly waiting for the results, his party held a news conference with its national co-ordinator, Senator Joseph Lambert.

The Senator eloquently rubbished Mr Martelly for the "spectacular U-turn" on his candidacy and denounced his street demonstrations as the "carnivalesque" actions of a "dysfunctional movement".

Posturing

Of course, none of this had anything to do with the counting of the actual votes - a process which most candidates still claimed was paramount.

But if it was the vote counting that mattered, why all this post-vote power posturing?

Image caption UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appealed for calm as votes are counted

Could it be, in reality, that a series of backroom deals were being attempted, away from the eyes of the voters - and almost irrespective of how they had cast their ballots?

And why, next to the perimeter wall of the ruling party headquarters, were there neat piles of fist-sized stones - light enough to throw, but heavy enough to inflict damage?

Two days after the vote, the joint election observer mission of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) published a long list of problems they had so far found, including:

  • The "enormous disparity" in resources enjoyed by the ruling party and its competitors
  • An "atmosphere of intense frustration and tension" caused by the deficient voters' lists
  • Late opening of polling stations
  • Repeat voting
  • Incorrect application of voting procedures
  • Deliberate acts of violence and intimidation

But after drawing up this list, the OAS/Caricom statement said: "The joint mission does not believe that these irregularities, serious as they were, necessarily invalidated the process."

It is difficult, objectively, to square the long list of serious irregularities with the breezy OAS/Caricom conclusion.

In other countries, if observers had noted just one of the failures on this list - still less all of them - there would probably have been outpourings of condemnation.

But it is apparently OK for Haiti. So that's all right then.