Globe and Mail Reports on Election

Haitian election descends into crisis as candidates declare fraud

Opposition unites to accuse government, election commission of rigging a vote many had hoped would open the way to a better future for the troubled island

By SONIA VERMA, Globe and Mail, Monday November 29, 2010

Haiti was plunged into political crisis after a majority of the presidential candidates rejected the vote before it was even over, decrying the election as fraud-filled.

Their declaration, made at a joint press conference Sunday afternoon, raised the spectre of violence in the streets, with fears that some Haitians may attempt to force the ouster of President René Préval or attack supporters of his protégé, candidate Jude Célestin, who were accused of orchestrating the alleged fraud.

A dozen opposition candidates united across party lines accused the government in tandem with Haiti's electoral authority of "executing a plan to steal the election," Josette Bijou, an independent candidate, said on their behalf. They said the vote-rigging included stuffing ballot boxes, buying votes and absent names on the voter rolls.

The politicians called for peaceful demonstrations against the government, promising to meet again on Monday to chart a course out of the deadlock.

Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), however, maintained the elections went "well" at the majority of 11,000 polling stations across the country.

"The CEP is comfortable with the vote," council president Gaillot Dorsainvil said, deepening the standoff between the government and its opposition, a rivalry that was magnified in the streets of the capital.

Almost immediately, thousands marched, hoisting placards featuring photos of their favourite candidate and demanding Mr. Préval's arrest.

Already frustrated by delays at polling stations and evidence of ballot-box stuffing, their rage coalesced as night fell.

"He has to go! He has to go!" chanted a group of demonstrators marching from the CEP headquarters toward the National Palace, which collapsed during the earthquake.

Ms. Bijou shared the stage with a spectrum of front-runners including former first lady Mirelande Manigat, carnival singer Michel Martelly, wealthy industrialist Jean-Henri Céant and noted lawyer Charles-Henri Baker.

The candidates set their pre-election rivalries aside, shaking hands and hugging in a rare and awkward show of political unity. But it was unclear whether the harmony would last given the stakes involved.

Although Haiti's political history is riddled with drama and rebellion, there was no apparent precedent to yesterday's stunning turn of events, leading most analysts to take a wait-and-see approach.

According to Haiti's constitution, the CEP has final say over the election and its outcome.

Mr. Préval, however, refused demands to replace the nine-member council before the election was held, leading some observers to denounce the process as flawed from the start.

Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, suggested it would be incumbent on the United Nations and the international community to intervene, given the degree of foreign involvement in the country.

"They are ultimately the ones who are supposed to be watching the system," he said.

He outlined two possible outcomes to the impasse.

If the UN and foreign donors allow the election results to stand, "all of our efforts in Haiti will be undermined because the government will be viewed by a large percentage of Haiti's population as illegitimate," he said.

The second scenario would essentially amount to hitting "reset" on the entire process.

"They could appoint a new electoral council, reopen registration for candidates and hold another election in four or five months," Mr. Concannon said. "It would be expensive but we are essentially financing this election and we want it to be a good election."

Complicating matters, preliminary results of Sunday's ballot are not due until Dec. 7, setting the stage for a charged week of political manoeuvring and further protests.

For many Haitians, election day began with a prayer. Before the polls opened at 6 a.m. they crowded into sweltering churches for morning service, and the air echoed with hymns.

After the earthquake, hurricane and cholera, they hoped yesterday's vote to select a new president would change their fate, and chart a new course for their ravaged country.

The election was also considered crucial by the international community. Canada was among those countries that urged Mr. Préval to hold elections according to the country's constitution after cancelling them in the wake of the earthquake.

Haitians have become increasingly frustrated with Mr. Préval, whose sluggish response to the earthquake and its aftermath angered voters.

For the first time in 20 years of Haiti's patchy democracy, there was no clear front-runner in this election, triggering predictions of a January run-off if a single candidate failed to secure more than 50 per cent of the vote.

Yesterday, however, the first signs of voter irregularities emerged before dawn, as the capital staggered to life.

Bennite Antoine, a 57-year-old woman still dressed in her thin white nightgown, was furious that there was no polling station within walking distance of St. Louis, the rag-tag tent shelter she calls home.

"There is no polling station here and we are afraid to walk the streets," yelled Ms. Antoine, who wanted to vote for Mr. Martelly "because he is a musician."

As the day unfolded polls that were supposed to open at 6 a.m. were delayed, in some cases by several hours.

Some voters who managed to find a functioning polling station could not find their names on the electoral lists. The voter rolls, however, still contained the names of people killed in the earthquake.

Paul Ali, a bleary-eyed 22-year-old had been waiting for two hours at a Cité Soleil polling station whose doors were still locked shut at 8 a.m.

"Jude Célestin's people are inside, preparing the fraud," he complained, surrounded by throngs of others. "This election has been stolen before it even began," he said to cheers of support.

In Tabarre, a group of voters who could not find their names on the electoral list trashed a polling station in a school.

A judge ordered another polling station in the same neighbourhood shut down after uncovering a stuffed ballot box.

Frustrated at the apparent fraud, and denied their chance to cast a vote, a group of young men brandished their national I.D. cards in the air.

"It's up to us to take the streets and convince the world these elections should be cancelled," said one, Louissandy Racine, a 22-year-old voter.

"It is our country. It is now in our hands," he said.

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