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Haiti election commission under scrutiny for ties to President René Préval

Haiti holds its first presidential debate Saturday, even as President René Préval's ties to the election commission has observers asking whether the CEP rejected candidates based on politics.

By Alice SperiCorrespondent, Hannah ArmstrongCorrespondent / September 16, 2010

Haiti's President René Préval gestures during a press conference after meeting Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (not pictured) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Aug. 31.

Arnulfo Franco/AP

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti

As Haiti gears up for its first-ever internationally televised presidential debate Saturday, confidence in the government’s ability to hold a credible poll is being undermined by allegations that President René Préval is attempting to sway the election.

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Details of an Aug. 16 meeting between Mr. Préval and members of Haiti’s election commission (CEP) has observers questioning whether the CEP rejected candidates based on politics instead of the Constitution.

The meeting came days before the CEP disqualified hip-hop star Wyclef Jean and 14 other candidates from running. It was confirmed by multiple sources and, while not in itself unprecedented or a sign of political manipulation, puts scrutiny on a supposedly independent body that is meant to ensure elections are free and fair.

“I have someone at the palace who told me about the meeting between Préval and the CEP,” Haitian Sen. Youri Latortue told the Monitor. “In the meeting they decided which people would be on the list.”

Mr. Préval has met in recent weeks with many of the remaining presidential candidates, which some have interpreted as a further attempt to maintain control over the election. Préval, elected in 2006 to his second term, is constitutionally barred from running again.

“It’s pretty clear that President Préval has significant influence in the daily operations of the CEP in its larger decisions, like decisions to include parties or not,” says Brian Concannon, director of the Washington-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). “Local press reports he’s talking to the CEP on a daily basis, which is clearly not a sign of independence.”

While candidates prepare for their first debate ahead of the Nov. 28 polls, disillusionment with politics and distrust of the political elite remains high among Haiti’s 4.5 million voters – many still homeless from the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed 300,000 people.

Though most observers say Mr. Jean was rightly disqualified because he failed to meet a residency requirement, hopes were initially high that his star-power could bring overdue scrutiny to the election process. Yet in the larger context of what is best for Haiti, international observers say that a somewhat-credible election is better than no election for a country struggling to get back on its feet and dig its way out of 700 million cubic feet of rubble still lining the capital’s streets.

The eight-member CEP, entirely appointed by Préval, denies any political interference. “We are technicians, we analyzed each candidate’s files according to the electoral law and the Constitution,” Wolf Lafargue, one of the CEP’s lawyers, said at a press conference in August. “We know no political pressure.”

Préval barred candidates, says senator

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