Haiti's elusive polls

The presidential vote was delayed, again, until Feb. 7.

Sunday was supposed to be election day in Haiti. Only it never happened. Again.

The 35 presidential candidates and some 1,300 legislative hopefuls are ready, 3.5 million Haitians are registered, and campaign jingles have run on the radio for so long that few are those who don't know the tunes by heart.

But otherwise, preparations for the first vote here since a rebellion ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide nearly two years ago have fallen short.

"The best you can say is that this process has been a political, technical, logistical, and financial fiasco," says Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.

Originally scheduled for Nov. 6, and subsequently postponed four times, Sunday's voting day came and went here without a vote being cast.

Constitutionally, a new government must be in place by Feb. 7. That will not happen, but officials announced Sunday that Feb. 7 will be the new election date.

Amid growing tensions, the commander of the UN peacekeeping force here was found Sunday slumped on the balcony of his hotel room, an apparent suicide. In recent months, the security situation has deteriorated markedly in the capital, with many assigning blame to the UN. Haiti's business association called for a general strike Monday to protest what they see as the UN's inability to secure Port-au-Prince.

The US has been firm in its support of elections, saying that a popularly elected government will help Haiti move forward.

"The people of Haiti have an opportunity to overcome the challenges of the past decade," said Nicholas Burns, a US undersecretary of state on a visit here last month, "and to renew their society by forming a new government that can provide stability and peace."

In statements Friday, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Security Council echoed these sentiments, with the OAS begging Haiti to "resolve its political differences through democratic mechanisms and procedures."

But some question the merits of holding elections in a country where decades of rule by dictators, kleptocrats, and populist agitators have diminished citizens' expectations of government and government's understanding of its role. Four out of five Haitians live on $2 a day, nearly 3 out of 4 are unemployed, and almost half of children here are malnourished. Sewage flows freely in the streets of Port au Prince, no one picks up the garbage, and the roads are in ruins.

"The problem is economic and this will not change the day after elections," says Andy Apaid, one of the wealthiest businessmen in the poorest country in the hemisphere. "We are in a real hole."

The reasons for delaying the vote seem endless: Only half of those registered have received high-tech voting cards; the 803 polling stations in place are said to be too far apart and too few; tens of thousands of people are listed at incorrect addresses - and security is reaching an all-time low, with 20 kidnappings a day reported last month.

To all this, the most common reaction here, from gang members to the interim government to UN officials is: "Pa faut mwe," Creole for, "Its not my fault."

Prime Minister Latortue and Rosemond Pradel, secretary-general of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), point bitterly to the OAS and the UN stabilization mission, or MINUSTAH. The UN, with a $60 million budget, has deployed some 9,000 soldiers, police, and civilian staff to Haiti, a country of 8.5 million people.

"We are fed up with those foreigners who sit there spending money and not delivering," Mr. Pradel said last week, arguing that OAS had not properly distributed voter ID cards, and MINUSTAH had "refused" to set up enough voting centers or to provide adequate security.

Evans Jean, leader of the notorious Boston gang in Cité Soleil, suspected of orchestrating dozens of kidnappings and one of Haiti's most notorious gangsters, gave MINUSTAH equally low points, charging its leadership was corrupt and abusive. "They are taking cuts from the kidnappers," he charges. "The police are even worse."

Both the head of the OAS mission in Haiti, Denneth Modeste, and the UN's Valdes have firmly dismissed these claims, and hinted the government and CEP have parts in the delays.

Mr. Modeste has repeatedly said that the OAS was ready to start distributing voter cards Sept. 25, but Haitian officials told them to wait because polling stations had not yet been chosen. The UN, meanwhile, says spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona, acted appropriately. "Our mission was to verify the voting centers ... physically existed, and to organize ballot boxes, ballots, computers, staff, and security. We have done our part..."

Dumarsais Siméus, a Haitian-American businessman barred from running in the elections on constitutional grounds, is more direct in assessing the government's responsibility.

"If the people supposed to do their job can't do it - and the government has proved this to be the case again and again - then we need a new team," he said in a phone interview from his office in Southlake, Texas. "If ... we try to force elections without cleaning up the mess, we will create a worse mess."

Some analysts also voice concern about drug traffickers. "The last thing they want is a legitimate government capable of building a police that they cannot corrupt," says ICG's Schneider.

The business community has also come under scrutiny, as many are known to dislike election frontrunner René Préval, a former president and Aristide associate who is backed by many urban poor.

"The bourgeois know Préval is going to win and he knows that means the poor will be in the picture," asserts Amaral Duclona, leader of the Belcourt gang in Cité Soleil. Wearing a cap emblazoned with Préval's party name, "LESPWA," and showing off his new registration card, Duclona charges that the "rich ... are doing everything they can to delay, even stop ... democracy."

But some charge that the blame game has gone too far. "Who cares who is to blame?" asks Mr. Onses-Cardona, the UN spokesman.

"The elections are going to be late, but they will happen. Iraq and Afghanistan were no better prepared. If we want elections in the style of Switzerland we can wait 1,000 years. But we are almost as close to ready as we will ever be."

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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