Haitian officials say they are satisfied with how the country’s long-awaited legislative elections rolled out Sunday despite having to suspend voting at dozens of centers where the process was plagued by violence and irregularities.
“Globally, I am satisfied with the performance,” said Pierre-Louis Opont, the head of the Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP.
Still, Opont and others promised to make corrections ahead of the Oct. 25 runoffs and presidential elections. Acknowledging there were “a lot of acts of violence,” he said four percent or 54 out of 1,508 voting centers were affected by problems.
Offenders, he said, whether they be candidates or voters, will be dealt with in coming days.
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“We are taking this seriously,” he said.
Delayed since 2012, Sunday’s legislative elections, which attracted 1,855 candidates to fill 20 Senate and 119 Chamber of Deputies’ seats, were about more that just restoring a defunct parliament. They are a vital and necessary exercise to see whether this crisis-plagued nation can hold elections that are fair, credible and secure. The vote also is critical to ending Martelly’s one-man rule, which began after the legislature dissolved before settling on an election date. Election results are expected to be released Aug. 19.
Across Haiti, voting centers opened late, materials were missing and in some communities, the balloting was disrupted by vandalism after enraged political party supporters and voters accused elections supervisors of favoring party monitors close to President Michel Martelly.
But the irregularities only affected a small number of voting centers, government officials said. The centers forced to close affected potentially 5 percent of Haiti’s 5.8 million registered voters.
“This 5 percent can’t make the process invalid,” Opont said.
Still, he conceded that even before the polls’ scheduled 6 a.m. start, some political parties were demanding that the vote be annulled because elections officials failed to provide passes on time for their monitors to observe the process.
Some say the calls for cancellation of the vote won’t go away because candidates and their supporters were disenfranchised by the disorganization and security lapses, despite elections officials insistence that opposition parties were represented inside the voting centers.
“They just need to go ahead and put in a transitional government so we can have fair elections and candidates don’t have to worry about the government in power trying to hold onto power,” said Elinor Devallon, a candidate for the lower chamber of deputies who didn’t get to vote until noon because his assigned voting center didn’t become operational until 10:30 a.m.
At least three police officers were injured and the mayor's office in the northern town of Limbe was burned down, officials reported late Sunday.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Evans Paul appealed to Haitians to go to the polls and not let the acts of a few people prevent them from freely deciding the person they want to govern them.
“It’s fundamental for these elections to finish well,” he said.
But the day was riddled with organizational problems even before polls opened. Four days before the vote, for example, there were electoral lists without the name of voters. The problems became apparent Sunday as voters complained about their names missing from voters lists attached to the centers.
“The planning is bad,” said Rony Pierre, 37, who arrived at Building 2004 at 7 a.m. to vote only to discover his name was nowhere to be found. “They said there was a list that was missing, but it’s too late.”
Moments earlier, someone had taken one of the ballot boxes and ran with it, while people across the street began pelting rocks. Both police and United Nations reinforcements were called.
But the biggest problem, which fueled tensions at voting centers around the county, was the political parties’ electoral observers.
Late Saturday, the CEP issued a communiqué saying that technical difficulties prevented the printing of passes for political party monitors. They were asked to report to the closest departmental elections bureau to get accredited. As the voting got underway, many complained that they were not allowed to either observe the process or vote at the center where they were assigned.
Upset, many shut down voting centers with the help of equally frustrated voters. They also accused election workers of fraud.
“They are whispering in people’s ear to vote for the Bouclier candidate,” Jean Paul Bastien, a monitor for the Alternative Party, said at Lycee Petionville. Bouclier is one of two political parties close to Martelly.
Police reinforcements were called to the voting center and forced to stand between an angry crowd and election workers, as the crowd screamed, “There will be no elections here.”
“We told them to do one election on Oct. 25, to give them time to prepare,” Bastien said.
At Ecole Nationale Isidore Boisrond, things became so tense that Haitian National Police officers were forced to fire shots in the air after partisans of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide accused Martelly’s PHTK supporters of trying to stuff ballots. Many ballots were later torn up and thrown on the ground. The center soon closed.
At the voting center at Rue Vaillant, election workers fled in fear as the supervisor locked himself in a classroom after the crowd overpowered police and went inside. Voters said election workers were preventing opposition monitors from observing the process.
A scared elections supervisor Sophonie Augustin at Ecole Nationale Hermann Heraux near downtown, said “police can’t handle the situation.”
Unlike in past elections, Haiti’s police force took the lead in providing security for the elections. Many people, however, complained about the lack of police presence at some voting centers or their passiveness when problems occurred.
Police Chief Godson Orelus, however, defended his officers professionalism, saying they were “very active” across the territory. Police, he said, made 137 arrests and seized 23 guns during the day.
Karl Jean-Louis, who is running an organization that tracked incidents in five of Haiti’s departments, including the capital, said he received more than 1,600 text messages about incidents at voting centers in five departments.
“We are very concerned about the violence,” said Jean-Louis, a former chief of cabinet to Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.
Jean-Louis said he does not yet have a picture of turnout.
Turnout at some voting centers was small, even at those in the hills above Port-au-Prince where police reported voting was proceeding smoothly during a visit.
Jeanise Jean, 55, said she went to vote in hopes that her choice will make a difference.
“I'm voting so we can live better, our children can go to school and we can find work,” she said. “Things are difficult.”