Moise campaigns for Jan. 24 run-off; Celestin sits it out

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Campaigning for Haiti's presidential runoff election kicked off Friday, though it appears there is only one candidate who will actively participate.

Government-backed contender Jovenel Moise, a little-known agricultural entrepreneur who led a crowded field of 54 candidates with nearly 33 percent of the vote in the Oct. 25 first round, attracted roughly 1,500 people to his first rally Friday evening. Big speakers pumped out bass-heavy songs featuring his campaign moniker, "Neg Bannann'' — Banana Man in Haitian Creole — and a group of women wore yellow banana costumes.

But the campaign team of the second-place finisher, Jude Celestin, was quiet a day after saying he would take part in the Jan. 24 runoff only if sweeping changes recently recommended by a special commission were adopted first to improve Haiti's much-criticized electoral machinery.

Celestin, a former state construction chief, told The Miami Herald on Thursday that outgoing President Michel Martelly "will have to do an election with just one candidate.'' His phone consistently goes unanswered and his campaign leaders did not respond to calls Friday.

While the Provisional Electoral Council has pledged to improve transparency for the final round, special commission spokesman Rosny Desroches has said he has seen very little progress to improve the process and ease tensions since the panel's recommendations were released last weekend.

Unless Celestin officially withdraws from the race his name will appear on the runoff ballot whether he chooses to campaign or not, Provisional Electoral Council spokesman Roudy Stanley Penn said Friday.

"Until he sends us a letter saying he is withdrawing he will be on the ballots for the final round and people can choose to vote for him,'' Penn said.

The U.N., the U.S. government and other foreign governments that monitor Haiti strongly support holding the final round of elections this month so a transfer of power to a new president can take place by a Feb. 7 constitutional deadline. The Organization of American States said Thursday that the scheduling of the runoff for Jan. 24 was a "step in the right direction.''

A mood of confusion was palpable in the capital of Port-au-Prince as campaigning opened for the once-postponed presidential and legislative runoffs.

That only one presidential candidate was campaigning left many perplexed and some expressed doubt the elections could reasonably take place under such circumstances.

"I've never heard about this happening in any normal country: Only one candidate in a presidential election. How can that be possible?'' asked food vendor Karine Fenelon, who said she was so turned off by Haiti's version of democracy that she's abstained from voting for years.

Unemployed accountant Pierre Richard Juste said he believed the opposition was playing "political games'' to better their chances of gaining power. He believes authorities will ensure the runoff takes place even if some quarters of society refuse to accept the results.

"We've come this far with these elections. There should now be a conclusion,'' said Juste, who has been raising four children with part-time work since he lost a tax office job in 2005. He intends to vote.

Elections are never easy in Haiti, which only had its first genuinely free vote in 1990. What's happening now has echoes of previous electoral turmoil.

In 2010, there were opposition-stoked allegations that outgoing President Rene Preval rigged the vote to elect his preferred successor, Celestin. That perception fueled violent clashes between Martelly's supporters and U.N. peacekeepers.

Celestin was eventually eliminated from the two-candidate runoff under pressure from the U.S., the Organization of American States and opposition protests. Martelly won and took office in May 2011.

In the 2000 electoral cycle, most voting stations were staffed exclusively by partisans loyal to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Boycotting opposition politicians accused Preval and Aristide of implementing a plan to impose a dictatorship.

This time around, Celestin rejected the first-round results as a "ridiculous farce'' and his Group of Eight opposition alliance is calling for a transitional government to organize a "fair'' election. Martelly claims the opposition has spread unsubstantiated accusations about "massive fraud'' to improve their position. (AP)