Haiti Passes an Election Test, Barely
Breaking cycle of corruption, dictatorships, vote paves way for presidential elections
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — WORKING by candlelight around the clock under chaotic conditions, Haiti's small army of ballot counters is building a picture of democracy, vote by vote.
Last Sunday's parliamentary, municipal, and local elections - the first since democracy was restored last October - have sent a signal to the world that Haiti has successfully broken with a tradition of corruption and dictatorships. And it paves the way for the presidential elections, due in December.
While results straggle in from distant countryside polling places, a stand-off on their legitimacy is developing between political parties and the official electoral board.
The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) overseeing the entire process admits that problems - lack of voting material, arson in polling stations, and incomplete ballots - have marred Sunday's elections. Yet overall, the eight-member council says, the elections were a success.
"Elections were held according to the law," insists Council president Anselme Remy, deflecting criticism of partisanship and incompetence. "They were honest and democratic."
"We have a better environment today than last year," President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said, backing the CEP. "Last year we had guns killing people, this year we have ballots."
Prominent political party leaders, however, disagree. At least three parties have asked that the elections be annulled, accusing members from other parties of fraud and "magouy," a Creole word loosely translated as monkey-business.
"It's clear these weren't honest elections," says incumbent senatorial candidate Turneb Delpe, party member of the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD), the coalition under whose banner Mr. Aristide came to power in 1990, but which he no longer supports.
"People may have voted freely, but then our political party observers were chased away, and ballot boxes confiscated. Is this democratic?" asks Mr. Delpe.
Reports of fraud
At the Port-au-Prince Department Electoral Bureau, where FNCD members say there was "massive fraud" Sunday evening, dozens of torn cardboard ballot boxes are stacked in disarray. Used ballots and torn registration lists litter the floor.
"There was no fraud here," said Raymond Eugene, vice-president of the Communal Electoral Bureau. His office is responsible for 1,388 polling stations, each of which employed five people on election day. "It was just that there were a huge number of people all bringing their results in to us at once."
There have been scattered incidents of electoral violence, including the death on Monday of an FNCD candidate for deputy in a southwest district, six cases of arson at voting stations, and the arrest of several dozen people attempting to disrupt the voting process. In at least one case, voting officials were beaten. Voting was canceled in seven communal areas, but the CEP has said they will be rescheduled.
Massive disorganization and inexperience are what kept people from voting this time, rather than fear and intimidation. United States Agency for International Development Director Brian Atwood categorized this election as "one of the most complicated" he's seen anywhere in the world.
More than 10,000 candidates ran for more than 2,000 offices. Each voter was given four ballots and instructed to mark an X in the white bullet: one for deputy, two for senators, one for mayor, and one for local council leader.
To help the estimated 80 percent illiterate, ballots also contained political party emblems and candidates' photos. They were color-coded to correspond to the four ballot boxes.
"They didn't have one election, they had 2,195," said Mr. Atwood. "This is a major step forward for democracy in Haiti. Despite the problems, the Haitian people voted freely and seemingly without fear."
No assistance given
Close observation revealed, however, that many voters had no idea how to fill out the ballots. By electoral law, neither employees of the polling booths nor political party observers were authorized to help people mark the ballots.
"What am I supposed to do here?" lamented Marie Loude Elisma on Sunday when she was handed her four ballots in the southern town of Palmistaven.
"There's nothing I can really do, legally," said Periel LaGuerre, president of Palmistaven polling place, shaking his head in frustration.
"In 1990 we had a lot of mismarked ballots," he said, noting 25 percent were rejected because they were filled out improperly. "The only ballot not mismarked was the one for president."
Haiti's first successful democratic election was in December 1990, when Aristide won by a 67 percent majority. Valid results from Sunday's election hold particular importance for Aristide because senate and deputy winners will open the 46th parliament in early fall, and that's crucial for passing legislation.
Final results aren't expected for another week. But for Ron Gould, who headed up the 300-person observer team from the Organization of American States, it's obvious who the real winner is. "At this point it's the Haitian people," he said. "It's a start, certainly."