Haiti is in a state of limbo after elections ended with thousands of Haitians claiming they were unable to vote, and allegations of fraud resulted in 12 of the 19 candidates asking that the election be annulled. Countrywide there were reports of complete disorganization which resulted in Haitians being sent to the wrong polling center, or being left off the list of voters all together.
It was an election that the entire world was watching, and one that had ramifications for a number of reasons. The next president will be presiding over the distribution of billions of dollars in international aid, and will lead the country through the first phases of a reconstruction that will likely take decades. With over a million people in tent camps and a cholera outbreak that has killed over 1,700 Haitians, the next president has his work cut out for him. But unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.
Ben, David and I drove around the city, and the surrounding neighborhoods, to cover the elections that everyone had anticipated were going to be a problem. Just days before, Michel Martelly, who is one of the front-runners, claimed in a press conference that the results of the election could not be trusted. “I can tell you that this election will not be credible,” he said to a group of journalists during a press conference, “there will be widespread fraud.” That night someone attempted to assassinate him, and Martelly’s campaign claimed it was the Preval-backed Inite party, whose candidate, Jude Celestin, is the one that many are accusing of fraud. Celestin has become the villain in this saga, as he’s backed by a president that has an incredibly low approval rating among the people. Haitians do not like President Preval, and they expect Celestin to be more of the same.
Sunday came and the streets were empty. Only authorized cars were allowed to drive, motorcycles were banned from the roads, and stores and shops were closed. The polls were scheduled to be open from 6am-4pm, so we left early to get to a polling center before they opened. At a school in Petionville which was acting as a polling center, voters lined up around the block as poll workers took their time to count ballots and arrange ballot boxes. The problem? They were still doing it an hour and a half after polls were supposed to open.
Inside the polling center, voters would check to make sure their name was on the list of voters designated to vote there, and then would enter one of the small classrooms. A poll worker would check your fingers for the indelible ink that was put on a voter’s thumb after they vote (to make sure you weren’t voting twice), they would check their voter ID card, and then they were given their ballots. The three boxes designated the three elections taking place: Senate, Deputy, and President.
At another polling center just blocks from the Presidential Palace, dozens of Haitians were complaining that their names were not on the lists that were plastered outside the voting center. “I have a card saying this is my polling center,” one woman said, “but I’ve looked for my name and it’s not there.” According to monitors this was a growing problem. With so many displaced people after the earthquake, voter registration was severely lacking, and those who had moved into tent camps or in with relatives, were unsure where they were supposed to vote. Many lost their voter registration cards in the earthquake, and attempts by thousands of Haitians to get them replaced before the election were unsuccessful.
And in a country where so little services are provided by the government, many people just didn’t come out to vote. Voter turnout was extremely low, especially in the countryside where the government is practically non-existent. By the time polls were closing around 4pm, there were no lines at polling stations, and little voting was being done at all.
About 3 months ago I started to make a point of asking the Haitians I would speak to if they were going to vote, and 90% of them said ‘no’. The responses were typically the same, but included at least one of these reasons:
1. I don’t have a voter registration card.
2. I don’t really care.
3. The government doesn’t do anything anyways.
4. I don’t like any of the candidates.
5. It doesn’t matter who I vote for, they will steal our money no matter what.
While many of these complaints are the same no matter where you vote, the reality is that the government here has never given the people a good reason to participate in the democratic process. Preval is the first president in the history of Haiti to be elected into office and finish his term (if he finishes it in January, of course), and he has done a terrible job. The country continues to deteriorate, especially after the earthquake, and the government has done nothing to stop it.
Unfortunately, the heavy presence of NGOs, both large and small, has not helped this situation either. Aid organizations are, in fact, incredibly un-democratic, considering that they cause people to rely on them instead of the government. They provide Haitians with the goods and services that a government should be providing, so when the population is in need they don’t go to their local officials, they go to the aid organizations instead. Whether or not the government can provide those services doesn’t matter, they have been dis-empowered to the point of being irrelevant in their own country, which is never a good thing.
We left the polling centers and ran into a march of supporters of Michel Martelly that were chanting in opposition of Celestin. The group grew as they sprinted down the major arteries of the city, and were blocked by police at a number of intersections as they tried to march towards the Provisional Electoral Commission’s headquarters. They snaked through neighborhoods to avoid the police barricades and then came across a polling center which was underneath a large building that houses Haitians in small apartments. The crowd rushed into the crowded polling station and caused a stampede resulting in people grabbing ballot boxes and running, while others were thrown to the ground after being pushed over.
What was left was a polling center in ruins. Ballot boxes were laying on the ground while empty ballots carpeted the floor beneath the voters. Behind the building, in a small stream, was a ballot box filled with ballots soaking in the murky water. And while many of the voting booths closed down, some stayed open as there were still Haitians that wanted to put in their vote before it was too late.
Soon after, the protesters began throwing rocks, and the polling center emptied once again. UN and Haitian police came in and formed a perimeter to protect the voting center, and then after showing an incredibly unnecessary amount of gun-power, went into the nearby tent camp and arrested half-a-dozen protesters who had allegedly been the rock-throwers.
It was at this point that the situation became depressing. While the election was never truly expected to run seamlessly, there was always that little ray of hope that it would be successful and Haiti would move into another, more positive phase. You want so badly for this to succeed. But after seeing the ballots floating away in the creek and watching the protesters destroying the voting center, you started to realize that this election was never really going to work. While there was obviously fraud occurring in a number of polling stations around the country, it appears that it was the utter lack of organization that, in the end, made this election such a failure.
And then, with 4 hours still to go until polls closed, 12 of the 19 candidates, including 3 of the front-runners, held a press conference calling for the elections to be annulled. Just to be clear, there are no exit polls in Haiti, so there is no way for anyone to know who is winning until the votes are actually counted. These candidates jumped the gun, and took to the streets to protest against reports of fraud that they were getting from around the country.
I caught up with Charles Baker, who is one of the leading candidates (but not a front-runner) in the election, as he was marching with the crowds. “There is massive fraud,” he explained as he walked with a crowd who’s numbers had quickly reached the thousands, “Our people, Mickey’s people, Manigot’s people, they’re not letting them vote.” He was explaining that in some polling centers only Celestin voters were being allowed in, and in other centers where Celestin supporters had realized they were losing, the ballot boxes were being stolen. “We’re taking to the streets until they annul the elections,” Baker explained, “and then we need to disband the (Provisional Electoral Commission), they were not prepared to handle this election.”
The crowd grew and the march stretched on for miles. With chants of “Down with Celestin, we want Martelly!” echoing around the city, protesters vowed to march until Celestin was ousted from the race. Unfortunately for them, some election officials around the city found the protest to be counteractive to the cause, as Celestin supporters continued to vote while Martelly supporters instead took to the streets.
We won’t know the official results of the race until later this week, and maybe as late as December 7th. After that they have already scheduled a run-off for January 16th, as it’s next to impossible for any of the 19 candidates to get the 51% of the vote needed to take office. Until then the country is expecting to see an increase in demonstrations and violence, as reports are coming out that Celestin may have the most votes, illegitimately or not. Take into account that I have not spoken to a single Haitian in the past 3 months that has told me he or she is going to vote for Celestin, and I think we can all agree that those results would be a disaster for a country whose people are already on the brink.
Ben and I were talking while waiting for the protest to return to where we were, and he explained that this could quickly move from being just a protest to becoming a movement, and he’s right. There are already reports that outside of Port-au-Prince there is violence as a result of the elections, and while today was quiet in the city, today’s announcement by the external governing body that oversaw the elections saying that the election process was relatively successful will only anger a population who feels slighted. It’s just a matter of time before the population rises up against a government, and a flawed democratic process, that has left their country unable to stand on its own, and unfortunately for Haiti, who already has enough problems to deal with, trying to sift through a fraudulent election to find a legitimate leader is not something that they need.