In Haiti election, voter confusion, apathy loom large

Despite the importance of today's Haiti election, turnout is expected to be low amid voter intimidation, confusion, and apathy.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
A Haiti election supervisor keeps an eye on the ballots in a voting center in downtown Port-au-Prince, Sunday. Haiti voted on Sunday in elections roiled by a cholera epidemic, political tensions and voter confusion, seeking a leader to guide the impoverished Caribbean country's recovery from a January earthquake.

Officials and aid workers are rushing to stem the spread of cholera. Streets are still filled with rubble. And more than 1 million people are living in camps.

Even under standards set by Haiti’s tumultuous past, today’s national elections are tricky.

“If we’ve ever needed a strong president as much as we do now, I can’t remember it,” says Bernadette Jean, who lives in one of the country’s estimated 1,300 camps filled with survivors of January’s earthquake.

Haitians are lining up to vote today for a president, 99 congressional deputies, and 10 senators in what has been called one of the most important elections in the country’s history. But despite the importance of the vote, turnout is expected to be low amid voter intimidation, confusion, and apathy.

IN PICTURES: Celebrities giving to Haiti

“Why vote?” asks Ms. Jean, undecided about whether she would cast a ballot and disgusted that the party she supports, Fanmi Lavalas, has been barred from running candidates. “People don’t vote, because people don’t trust the elections.”

Not far from Jean’s camp, the presidential palace lay in ruins, a reminder of how January’s earthquake decimated the government -- and the enormous task that lies ahead.

The top candidates

A few of the 19 presidential candidates have emerged as potential winners, including former first lady Mirlande Manigat; the current president’s choice, Jude Celestin; a musician named Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly; and prominent businessman Charles Henri Baker. But with polling notoriously unreliable, few have wagered to name a front-runner.

Unless one candidate captures more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held on Jan. 16.

Campaigns concluded on Friday with rallies across the country, airplanes pulling banners through the skies above Port-au-Prince and helicopters littering camps with propaganda.

Four presidential candidates called for the vote to be pushed back due to the cholera epidemic, which, authorities claim, has killed more than 1,600 since the outbreak began in October.

The United Nation’s peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH, said it is confident the vote can be carried out fairly.

“Holding the vote on Nov. 28, the date declared by the president, is important because it establishes credibility,” said Mathieu Bouah Bile, the United Nations’ chief electoral officer in Haiti.

Frustrations mounting

Yet, in the run-up to the vote, electoral observers said some Haitians were frustrated by the system.

“We are seeing quite a lot of people who have been trying to get their [voter] cards to vote” in recent days, says James Morrell, executive director of the Haiti Democracy Project, which has a team of 75 observers spread throughout the country.

Late Saturday afternoon, a few hours before an 8 p.m. government-imposed curfew, Haitians waited for voter cards outside the main Interim Electoral Commission (CEP) office. By night’s end, many had been turned away.

A drive to distribute cards grew voter rolls by 200,000 people to roughly 4.5 million registered voters in the months leading up to today’s vote.

But officials expected only 40 to 50 percent of voters to turn out, a significant drop from 2006 when turnout was closer to 60 percent.

Voter confusion

Part of the expected low turnout may come down to confusion.

At an electoral center off a traffic-clogged Port-au-Prince avenue, a stream of annoyed voters searched tattered 8x11 printouts for their names on Saturday.

After searching for 20 minutes, Tavien Fanord gave up. He lives across the street from the center, but he had no idea where he was supposed to vote.

“They told me to go to some Web site and put in my [ID] number,” he says. “Why should I have to go pay money to get on a computer. I live right there.”

He pointed across the street to a house street near piles of rubble and pancaked buildings. Behind him, a woman complained that she’d taken a nine-hour bus ride to the capital to vote, only to be told she had to go back to the countryside because her name didn’t appear on the rolls.

“The historical obstacles – such as low turnout, suspicion of fraud, and campaign violence – not only persist but have been greatly exacerbated by the [earthquake]", the International Crisis Group reported recently.

History of dodgy votes

Haitian elections have rarely gone smoothly. In 1987, the first presidential election after Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was removed, only 4 percent of voters turned out after a violent election day episode caused the vote to be delayed.

“This year, there have been several reports, from around the country, of electoral violence,” said Bernice Robertson, Port-au-Prince-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. “That’s not new to Haiti’s elections.”

Police, volunteers, and UN forces have been deployed to guard the 11,000 polling places.

In 2006, Rene Preval emerged from that election with just 48.8 percent of the vote, less than the majority needed to avoid a run-off. But after electoral officials discounted blank ballots – which were originally counted as a vote for “none of the above” – he was given 51.1 percent and took office in May.

IN PICTURES: Celebrities giving to Haiti

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