Haiti election: Struggle over Wyclef Jean's eligibility could spark crisis

The Haiti election commission postponed its ruling on who is eligible to run for president. Critics charge that the commission opposes Wyclef Jean's candidacy.

Sebastien Pirlet/Reuters
Haitian singer Wyclef Jean, a presidential candidate in the next Haiti election, attends a news conference before his concert at the Antilliaanse Feesten music festival in Hoogstraten, August 13.

It was the news everyone in Haiti had been waiting for: Would hip hop star Wyclef Jean be officially cleared to run for president on Nov. 28?

Haiti's Interim Electoral Commission (CEP) was supposed to announce Tuesday who among the 34 aspiring candidates meet all constitutional requirements to run for president. But late afternoon came and went with no word, and the CEP waited until 10 p.m. to put out a press release postponing the decision to Friday.

Although the CEP’s deliberations should be largely technical, critics say they have become subject to political manipulation by a Haitian political elite seeking to limit the participation of powerful Haitians living abroad. Mr. Jean, who recently announced that if president he would fight for the diaspora’s right to vote in Haitian elections and has gone into hiding after reportedly receiving death threats, has become the symbol of that power struggle.

STORY: Is Wyclef Jean eligible to run for president of Haiti?

“In the next few days, the CEP will send a clear message to the diaspora,” says Jean-Junior Joseph, a political blogger and spokesperson for former Haitian Prime Minister Gérard Latortue, as well as a member of the Haitian diaspora himself. “Dragging the decision out may not only have to do with the fear of protests, but also with the fact that those in power want to make sure some people get left out. The political elite see the diaspora as a threat because they have money, and [the political elite] can reverse any election in their favor.”

Scrutiny over residency

Four of the candidates face scrutiny over their residency status. Presidential hopefuls must have resided in Haiti for five consecutive years prior the election. Jean has lived in the United States since he was 9, but his lawyers have recently argued that Jean meets the residency requirement. He was appointed Haiti's roving ambassador in 2007.

“We have proved that Mr. Jean has residency in Haiti, where he is also a majority shareholder in a television station,” his lawyer Joel Petit-Homme said.

If Jean gets past the CEP’s decision, his campaign will benefit from his huge popularity and wealth.

IN PICTURES: Wyclef for President

Political crisis brewing?

“The delay is obviously about Wyclef,” says political blogger Mr. Joseph, adding that the musician has a lot of weaknesses as a candidate, but that eliminating him from the race for political reasons risks stoking tensions.

“If the law is on his side, they should let him pass and then fight him during the campaign,” Joseph argues. “If they are unjust to him, Haiti will face a political crisis in the months ahead.”

But Port-au-Prince carried on as usual on Tuesday, in spite of the unrest many anticipated if the CEP ruled against Wyclef. Security had been heightened around the homes of CEP members and foreign NGO workers.

Street cleaners for Wyclef

On a road leading up to the CEP office, street cleaners hired by Jean’s charitable foundation Yéle Haiti swept the roads, a welcome but rather marginal contribution in a country still decimated from the Jan. 12 earthquake. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) estimates that 234,000 cubic meters of rubble still line the streets.

Yéle’s workers were nowhere to be seen until Jean announced his candidacy two weeks ago.

“They told us we will be doing this job for at least a year,” says Peterson Domercant, a 27-year-old unemployed since the earthquake leveled his family’s small shop. He was just recruited into Yéle's cash-for-work program. “Yéle does wonderful work.”

Mr. Domercant says he does not know of any links between the organization’s sudden presence in the streets of Port-au-Prince and Jean’s bid for the presidency, but he described himself as a big supporter of the Grammy-winning musician.

“We love him because he’s proud of being Haitian,” he says, adding that would vote for Jean. “I’m not sure if he is qualified but we should give him a chance.”

IN PICTURES: Wyclef for President

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