The date scheduled for the first round of Haiti’s presidential and parliamentary elections, November 28, is racing towards the island. Simultaneously Cholera is racing across the countryside in the Artibonite, the Central Plateau and beyond, and Hurricane Tomas raced up the Caribbean, lashing the South of the country and cutting off all towns below Leogane from the capital. The Provisional Electoral Council maintains that they are doing everything they can to prepare, and that they are moving ahead on schedule. But serious doubts have been raised about the timetable.
Even before these crises Haiti had many obstacles to legitimate and credible elections. The voter list has not been updated since 2005, so many people who lost their lives in the earthquake are still on the list, which could facilitate electoral fraud. Many Haitians are not registered to vote, or lost their identification cards in the earthquake. For months long lines have snaked out from the National Identification Offices as people tried to fix their paper work—though the lines continued even after the publication of the voter list, and many Haitians seek identity cards to go to the bank or to deal with the police, not just to vote.
With the disqualification of some popular potential candidates, including Wyclef Jean, and low public confidence in the remaining pool to bring the “change” most campaign for, many Haitians have said they doubt they will vote. Emmanuel, a particularly disgruntled citizen who opted not to give his last name said, “I’m not going to vote because these elections will do nothing. We need something bigger than what these elections can bring.” Low turnout could undermine the credibility of the outcomes.
Finally, there is low confidence in the Electoral Council (CEP) and many Haitians are convinced that the CEP is under current president Rene Préval’s control. Wyclef Jean, angry at being disqualified from participating lashed out to President Préval in his song “Prison for the CEP”: “Even though you say that the decision came from the Provisional Electoral Council, I know you hold all the cards.” His personal frustration clearly influences his statements, but suspicion about the independence of the CEP is widespread.
Nonetheless Haitians who do choose to vote will have to select among the participating candidates. And while there are 19 candidates on the list, several have shown themselves to be notable and comparatively popular in the race. This is a unique election for Haiti because there is still no clear anticipated victor, said Pierre Louis Opont, director general of the CEP, “Anyone could succeed, which is different than before. It’s a real head to head, and anyone could break away.”
Candidates in Haiti tend to run on a personal platform. The person is more important than the party, and personal politics often means undefined or loose platforms. A recently released International Crisis Group report on the elections expresses numerous weaknesses, and includes the recommendation that “candidates should begin to articulate substantive platforms that address national problems (emphasis added).” Alix Filsaimé, a former member of parliament and current president of the national commission for disarmament, explained in an interview at the beginning of the campaign, “we need to get out of the current framework because it is always responding to a person or a personality and not about a program.”
These fundamental flaws are still present, but Haitians still must make their choice. According to a recent poll, Jude Celestin, Mirlande Manigat, Michel Martelly, Charles-Henri Baker, Jacques Edouard Alexis, and Jean Henry Céant are leading the race.
Jude Celestin—Inité (Unity)
Jude Celestin, Préval’s pick to head the Inité (Unity) party has some credibility from tangible successes during his tenure as head of CNE, the national committee that works on infrastructure. Successfully building some roads—including one in the South nicknamed “Préval”—may gain him some votes. But the widespread frustrations with Préval’s leadership after the earthquake, and the exhaustingly slow recovery effort influences a turn away from the ruling party and towards the opposition. Sporadic protests continue where marchers cry “aba Préval” and denounce his “blockages to the advancement of all the departments.”
Celestin was unknown on the public political scene before his campaign, but with Inité’s massive campaign budget, his smiling portrait gleams at the people from every surface in Port-au-Prince, and dots the countryside. In a recent debate with Céant and Eric Charles, a less-known candidate, he emphasized the need for “political stability” to further the reconstruction and develop the country.
Romusco Gregory, an Inité campaign manager in the Artibonite region says the party has a “strong team.” Gregory said, “with the continuing suffering of the people after January 12, and now with cholera and the hurricane, we need more time to make things better.”
Celestin claimed to put his campaign on hold when the cholera outbreak struck, and he started running spots on the radio emphasizing public health practices, rather than campaign slogans. But Gregory said the campaign continues and they are just working in other provinces.
Mirlande Manigat- RNDP (National Gathering of Progressive Democrats)
Mirlande Manigat is viewed by her supporters as a “serious” candidate based on her academic background and her emphasis on honesty. She is vice-rector at Quisqueya University and has authored numerous books on international relations. She denounces corruption and emphasizes the role of the government in moving the country forward rather than placing blame on international actors.
She is also a strong supporter of incorporating the strengths of the diaspora. She calls for the elimination of the constitutional ban on dual citizenship and for opening the byways to facilitate diaspora engagement with Haiti. In a statement on her website she emphasizes, “The two Haiti’s, that of the interior and that of the exterior should hold hands.”
Yet for disgruntled voters tired of years of the same political elite trading titles, Manigat does not present a break with the past. Her husband, Leslie Manigat is a former president and long time player on the political scene, and she has called him her main advisor.
Leslie Manigat caused a scandal after the 2006 election when he lost to Préval and said “a dog does nothing but return to his vomit.” While the Manigats maintain this was taken out of context, Mirlande Manigat did not renounce this statement until the current campaign was already underway. This characterization of the people, misunderstood or not, highlights her membership in the political elite, which could weaken her standing among those who want change.
She was also criticized as an unreliable candidate after making it to the second round in the 2006 election for senator for the West department and then dropping out before the second vote, though she apologized to the voters and said she dropped out due to anticipated electoral fraud.
Charles-Henri Baker-Respe (Respect)
Charles-Henri Baker presents himself as a staunch opposition leader. He condemns the poor leadership that he faults for holding back the country for decades, emphasizing his activism against Duvalier and criticizing Préval’s “total absence of leadership” after the earthquake. He hopes to reinvigorate the presidency to work for the benefit of the Haitian people. His campaign posters scream “Nou Bouke! (We are tired!)” emphasizing his solidarity with the people.
Along with all the candidates, Baker recognizes the continual daily struggles of the population and plans to make fundamental changes to society. He emphasizes the responsibility of citizens to work for a better life, but also aims to rebuild their confidence in the state.
His pillars are order, discipline and work. As both a successful businessman, and an active member of civil society, he emphasizes his use of his commercial success to create jobs. Employment for Haiti’s widely unemployed population and youth is another central tenant of his campaign.
But Baker is white, and in Haiti’s stratified society this holds much weight. Noirisme, the political movement used by Duvalier to take power back from the Mulatto elite to the Black majority, has been a serious political ideology ever since. Jean-Junior Joseph, a Haitian political blogger said, “there’s no way they would vote for [Baker], based on the color, but he could have run a campaign like Obama where he opened up the debate on race in Haiti and brought it out of the closet to be discussed. But he hasn’t acknowledged it and that will be his weakness.”
Jacques Edouard Alexis-MPH (Movement for Haiti’s Progress)
Jacques Edouard Alexis is a well-known political figure in Haiti. An agronomist by training from Gonaive, he is a two time Prime Minister, and has held numerous ministerial positions including Minister of Education, Minister of Culture and Minister of the Interior. He was head of the founding committee of Quisqueya University, the first rector from 1990-1996, and returned to the post from 2005-2006.
He is both exceedingly qualified, and exceedingly representative of the political elite many Haitians have grown frustrated with. His plan centers on finding new homes for vulnerable citizens and those living in tents, reforming the government to facilitate more efficient and effective actions, addressing the sanitation issues egregiously exposed by the recent cholera epidemic, expanding educational opportunities and creating jobs. He presents a well thought out analysis of the issues, without presenting particularly new strategies to address the issues everyone can see.
Alexis’ entry into the campaign emphasizes the personal politics in the current campaign. He was a frontrunner to represent Inité, until Celestin was selected instead, some say to have a younger face in a youth-centered campaign that was dominated by Wyclef Jean’s slogan “jen kore jen (youth strengthen youth)”. When he was rejected from representing Inité, he found another party, MPH to back his campaign.
Alexis most recently retreated from the political scene in 2008 when he was removed from his post as Prime Minister in the face of food riots. The senate held a no-confidence vote and forced him out, saying his attempts to mitigate the problem were too little and too late. Jean-Junior Joseph, the political blogger said, “if Alexis divorced from Préval in 2008 he would be the one standing up now, staying quiet was the mistake he made.” Alexis stands as neither the ruling party, nor a strong opposition candidate.
Jean Henry Céant-Renmen Ayiti (Love Haiti)
Jean Henry Céant presents himself as a populist in the line of Aristide. Though he is not officially representing Aristide’s Lavalas party, he shares the same campaign slogan, “tout moun se moun (every person is a person).” He also is said to be in regular contact with Aristide, and should Aristide speak it is expected he will endorse Céant.
The Lavalas party, while overtly excluded from the current election, continues to hold significant sway in Haiti. Lavalas supporters have protested the elections almost every day, even after it was clear that the decisions about participants had been finalized. While numerous candidates have ties to Lavalas, supporters call for overt participation of the party, and for Aristide to return from exile in South Africa. If Aristide supports Céant he could gain significant support.
Céant emphasizes his humble beginnings, born to a public-market vendor in Croix-des-Missions, and his work with civil society organizations. He is a public notary, with little overt political background, but has mobilized a sizable following in his short history on Haiti’s political stage. In the most recent poll he placed sixth with 7.6 percent of the vote.
But questions about his financial integrity are beginning to emerge. Céant’s wife, Ginette was personal secretary for Aristide during his last term 2001-2004, and investigations show potential embezzlement of state funds into false company accounts from which the Céants later withdrew. If these allegations are verified and publicized in Haiti, Céant could struggle to defend his ability to manage state funds.
If the elections are held as planned, Haitians who opt to take to the polls seem likely choose one of the candidates outlined above. Whoever wins has significant challenges ahead addressing the internal daily struggles Haitians face and managing the significant participation of the international community. The candidates and the CEP have a busy month ahead.
Allyn Gaestel is a freelance journalist based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.