Standoff over presidential runoff seen as threat to Haiti

Haiti is locked in a political crisis that threatens to further stall recovery from the devastating earthquake of a year ago and could swiftly turn violent.

Seven weeks after a flawed presidential election, President Rene Preval is resisting an international panel’s recommendation that his handpicked candidate be removed from a runoff, according to diplomatic sources. Preval also is saying he intends to remain in office beyond his term.

Haiti desperately needs to seat a new government to move ahead in the reconstruction of its quake-ravaged capital, where hundreds of thousands of people languish in vast tent cities, and to improve the disbursement of aid money, analysts say.

The core of the dispute now is over which candidates qualify for the runoff to the Nov. 28 vote and whether fraud was so extensive that the entire process should be discarded and done over.

By most accounts, Mirlande Manigat, a professor who briefly served as first lady two decades ago, won the highest number of votes in the hastily arranged election. The government-controlled Provisional Electoral Council, to the surprise of many election observers, then placed Preval’s candidate, minor technocrat Jude Celestin, in the No. 2 finishing spot, which would have sent him into a runoff with Manigat that originally was scheduled for Sunday but postponed indefinitely because of the uncertainty.


The council’s count put popular musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly in third place and out of contention.

Protests over those purported results erupted throughout Port-au-Prince as soon as they were announced in early December. Thousands of Haitians rioted, burned down buildings and paralyzed this capital, accusing Preval’s government of stealing the election.

Under pressure, Preval agreed to an inspection of the vote by the Organization of American States. In a report that has not officially been made public but has been widely leaked, the OAS found that the outcome was not credible and had involved the rampant stuffing of ballot boxes (more than 200 polling stations supposedly registered 100% turnout when overall turnout barely reached 20%). The OAS determined that “it cannot support the preliminary results.”

The report recommended that Celestin be eliminated and the runoff spot given to Martelly, who bested Celestin by 0.3% of the vote, according to the OAS.

Preval initially refused to accept delivery of the OAS report; adopting its recommendations would mean acknowledging that his supporters engaged in well-orchestrated electoral fraud. The report finally was delivered to the government Thursday.

Preval, an aloof and mercurial leader in the best of times, has been much criticized for his uninspired handling of Haiti’s wretched year of crisis. He now must decide whether to accept the OAS recommendations, as the international community is urging, or ignore them and risk further isolation.

“It seems that Preval doesn’t want to cooperate in any way,” said a European diplomat involved in the process who did not want to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. “It is a terrible political crisis. The people are ready to hit the streets. They’ve been waiting all this time. The country desperately needs to move ahead.”

Nations that have pledged billions of dollars to Haiti since the quake had urged that the election be held, hoping that it would produce a legitimate government that would help jump-start reconstruction efforts bogged down by indecision and red tape.

Even before election day came to an end, the abuses and irregularities were evident. Twelve of the 18 presidential candidates that day demanded annulment of what they termed a “fake” poll.

“The whole election was a massive fraud, a farce,” congressional candidate Marie Francesca Sifrin, from a minor party that advocates tossing out the results, said in an interview during a ceremony memorializing the more than 300,000 people killed in last year’s quake.

“The people will not accept it,” she said. “We really must cancel it and start all over again.”

Charles-Henri Baker, an opposition presidential candidate, said in an interview: “What this is about is whether the vote of the Haitian people will be respected. It has been completely trampled on.”

Preval, who cannot stand for a second consecutive term, has said publicly that he will remain in office beyond the Feb. 7 end of his mandate. He argues that his own inauguration was delayed (by disputed results then too), entitling him to rule until April.

Although Preval has not commented publicly about the report, a senior aide said the president was angry that the international community cornered his government into holding an election at an impossibly difficult moment, then faulted the government when that electoral process was so flawed.

Diplomats and others are worried that the longer Preval stalls, the greater the potential for bloodshed in the streets. Rumors are rife that Celestin’s supporters are preparing to riot; many Haitians are frustrated and fed up with a political stalemate that sinks them ever deeper in misery.

On Friday, police shot and killed one protester during a gun battle at a barricade being set up by demonstrators in Port-au-Prince.

A new date for a runoff has not been set, but several election officials said it could not happen before February.