Haiti officials exclude ruling party candidate from runoff
Facing international pressure, Haiti’s electoral council Thursday dropped the ruling party candidate from the presidential runoff, a move expected to ease tensions generated by the disputed first round of voting in November.
Election officials said the March 20 runoff would place Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady who received the most votes in the first round, against Michel Martelly, a popular singer known as Sweet Micky who was left out of the runoff when preliminary results were announced in December. At that time, the runoff was expected to pit Manigat against technocrat Jude Celestin, who was tapped by President Rene Preval as candidate of the Unity party.
But the latest decision by election officials, announced behind schedule and with little explanation after a tense overnight wait, excluded Celestin. The decision ended an extended appeals period and is considered final.
Martelly was already talking about his top priorities as president, and he thanked supporters who took part in the campaign.
“Victory today was not a gift,” he said Thursday afternoon in a news conference.
Calm prevailed in the capital, Port-au-Prince, despite concerns that unrest could greet whatever decision the panel made. A day earlier, stores and banks closed early and nervous Haitians hurried home before the decision.
On Thursday, most people seemed relieved the city was back to its normal, clamorous pace.
“The streets are calm; there’s no disorder. People stayed home today because they are scared or they are satisfied,” said Marciel Pierre, 56, a roadside vendor.
Tensions over the November vote, marred by fraud and disarray, sparked violent protests when the preliminary tally put Celestin ahead of Martelly. As the crisis dragged on, many people feared unrest at a time when Haiti is trying to rebuild from last year’s destructive earthquake.
A U.S. Embassy statement called Thursday’s announcement “an important milestone” and urged calm on all sides. The statement offered U.S. help to ensure a fair vote “and reduce the level of fraud and irregularities that affected the first round.”
The United States and other nations had called for Celestin to be dropped because of findings of fraud in the Nov. 28 vote. Fearing the loss of international aid, members of the Unity party tried unsuccessfully last week to persuade Celestin to drop out.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Haiti last weekend and voiced support for a recommendation by the Organization of American States that Celestin be left off the ballot. An OAS study of vote results concluded that widespread vote-rigging put him over the top.
Election officials said their decision was based “in part” on the OAS report. They did not cite concerns that Haiti could lose foreign aid if Celestin stayed.
Clinton said there were no plans to suspend aid for Haiti, where hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims are still without homes. But Preval and his inner circle faced a tightening squeeze. Two weeks ago, the State Department revoked the visas of several Haitian leaders close to the president.
Some candidates and outsiders, including the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, called for a new vote. Critics said foreign powers strong-armed Haiti into dropping Celestin.
“This is a big setback for democracy in Haiti,” Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, said in a statement Thursday. The center carried out its own review of the vote and called the OAS study “deeply flawed.”
Still unclear is the fate of Preval, whose five-year term is to end Monday. The Haitian Senate voted last year to allow him to stay in office until mid-May, but he may face public pressure to leave sooner.
Either way, Preval’s Unity party is expected to control the new legislature.
The election turmoil was an ill-timed distraction. Besides the earthquake recovery and political crisis, the country is battling a cholera epidemic.
Special correspondent Gaestel reported from Port-au-Prince and Times staff writer Ellingwood from Mexico City.
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