Haiti election campaign opens amid anger over candidate exclusions

The exclusion of populist party Fanmi Lavalas and other contenders heightens concerns that the Haiti election will fail to introduce leaders closer to voters’ core concerns.

By , Correspondent

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    Haitian presidential candidate Wilson Jeudi (r.) wipes his brow as candidate Dr. Gerard Blot looks on before participating in a debate in Port-au-Prince on Sept. 18.
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In Camp Immaculate, a tent-city for many of the 1.5 million Haitians made homeless by the Jan. 12 earthquake, hundreds of protesters gather regularly to tap out rhythms with bits of debris and chant in the noon-day heat: “No voting under tents!” and “Down with Préval!”

Central to their anger is the belief that elections scheduled for Nov. 28 have been rigged in advance. These partisans of the popular leftist party Fanmi Lavalas (FL) blame an electoral commission appointed by President Rene Garcia Préval for banning the party from contesting the upcoming poll.

As the campaign season officially began today, the anger and disillusionment on display in places like Camp Immaculate was evidence of how few Haitians believe the process will deliver a fair outcome.

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On top of banning the FL, the party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that has won every election it has contested, the Provisional Electoral Committee (CEP) disqualified a number of candidates, among them the hip-hop star Wyclef Jean and former ambassador Raymond Joseph.

Maintaining the status quo?

Signs that this will not be a clean election have been in evidence for months. The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations warned in a July report (pdf) that the exclusion of FL and the failure to reform the CEP could compromise the elections’ legitimacy.

But US support for the election appears assured. "Peaceful and credible elections and the transfer of power to a new government will be key milestones of Haiti's progress," Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in an editorial on Friday that was released amid growing alarm that the election is being stitched up for Mr. Préval's allies.

The international community, which is providing most of the election’s $29 million price tag, “would rather work with Préval because he’s the only one they know right now,” says Marleine Bastien, a leader of the Haitian-American community in South Florida. Préval, who cannot run for another term, has endorsed former government construction agency director general Jude Celestin. Observers say almost all presidential candidates represent the ruling elite surrounding Préval.

“We in the US have not put pressure on the CEP to do the right thing and uphold democratic values in Haiti – which means allowing Lavalas to partake in elections," says Ms. Bastien, who is not an FL partisan but says all viable parties must be allowed to participate.

Mario Joseph, Haiti’s most prominent international human rights lawyer, holds the UN responsible for tolerating practices that compromise the fairness of the country's elections. “They have supported this election selection, they have supported the exclusion of political parties, they have supported Mr. Préval in the choice of an electoral council without meeting with political parties,” he says.

Préval builds ties with international community

Préval came to power in 2006 in the first vote following the ouster of Mr. Aristide, whose increasingly violent rule was marked by nationalization and wealth redistribution measures that alienated Haitian elites and international partners. Préval curried favor with international partners by privatizing state-owned companies and extending the mandate for the UN peacekeeping mission even as he lost domestic support.

Tensions boiled over in 2008, as food prices soared and riots broke out. Demonstrators stormed the presidential palace demanding the resignation of Préval and the departure of UN troops. The official turnout figure for April 2009 senatorial elections was just 11 percent, stark evidence of the lack of confidence in the system.

'Rebellion brewing'

Those elections were the first to exclude FL. Despite formally objecting, the international community continued to support the government which “gave the CEP a green light to keep excluding the government’s political rivals,” the Institute on Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) wrote in a report.

IJDH director Brian Concannon says UN and US support for the November elections is “a short-term expedient that’s going to come back and haunt them in the long-term.”

“The exclusion [of FL] will hurt not only Haiti and its people but it will also hurt all partners,” adds Bastien. “I feel a lot of rebellion brewing under the surface.”

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