Haiti

In Haiti, a long-awaited presidential election finally happens - with a few minor hitches

Haitians pick a president

Haiti heads to the polls to elect a president.
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Haiti heads to the polls to elect a president.

Haiti's high-stakes, on-again, off-again rerun of the presidential election finally happened Sunday.

Who will emerge the victor? With 27 presidential candidates and 179 others running for 16 Senate seats and 25 in the Lower Chamber of Deputies, the results won’t be known for days.

But this Election Day, like the new fraud-deterrent purple indelible ink, was much improved over the last year’s — when the results were so marred by allegations of fraud that Haiti chose to rerun the contests — even with problems that included rising rivers that delayed voting at two centers in the Northeast and prevented it at two others in the Grand'Anse regions, plus ongoing rain and problems with voter registration lists.

"It was a successful day," said Leopold Berlanger, the president of the nine-member Provisional Electoral Council (CEP). "A day that unfolded in calm, serenity... and, in general, this day unfolded without violence."

Like Berlanger, the Organization of American States, which fielded 130 observers around the country to observe the vote, said it was also pleased with how the vote took place Sunday despite concerns about low turnout.

"We've seen, in general terms, a peaceful day, very few minor incidents," said Gerardo de Icaza, director of the Organization of American States' department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation Secretariat. "We have not observed any incidents out of the ordinary. We're more optimistic than on Oct 25."

The previous presidential vote on Oct. 25, 2015, was the subject of widespread allegations of fraud, eventually triggering the rerun. The new election had been set for Oct. 9, but was pushed back six weeks after Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti.

As the poll workers started the late night counting Sunday, a temporary blackout struck the capital, forcing many to do the counting for a while by the light of an oil lamp.

Still, Berlanger and others called for calm and reminded Haitians that no one other than the elections body can provide results.

The Citizen's Observatory for the Institutionalization of Democracy, a consortium of various local organizations including human rights group, echoed similar sentiments, asking that everyone involved in the electoral process "especially political parties, candidates, their supporters and law enforcement maintain democratic behavior until the end of the process."

The organization urged Haitians to let the country’s electoral process work: "The results of the elections must be a reflection of the verdict of the ballot boxes and not the expression of fraud (ballot boxes and others) or violent movements through the streets.”

Some voters like Rita Pierre took it even further. She and others warned the international community, which refused to help Haiti underwrite the elections’ $55 million pre-Matthew price tag because it opposed the rerun decision, to stay out of the elections.

"We're here to give the international community a lesson," she said, adding that “this time, the people will not sleep. We are fed up.”

Two major concerns, however, were the low turnout and the extent to which people could not vote because their names were not on the main voter registration list or a supplemental one.

"This is a big problem because the people cannot vote," said Lionel Louis, a poll watcher for former Haitian President Michel Martelly's PHTK party, as he sat inside polling station No. 006.

Turning to the three see-through plastic urns for ballot collection marked “President,” “Depute” and “Senate,” he said, "there aren't even 100 votes in there."

It was less than an hour before 4 p.m. — when polls closed — and most of the polling stations were empty. Outside, however, dozens of prospective voters like Martine Clervin anxiously searched typed lists on a wall, looking for their names.

After contacting an elections call center, Clervin, 30, learned that she was assigned to vote in Fonds Verrettes, outside of Port-au-Prince.

Clervin, who has lived in the capital all her life, said she didn't even know where the town was.

"What can I do?" she asked, as she turned to go home.

Nicole Phillips, a U.S. lawyer who observed the vote as part of the National Human Rights Network's (RNDDH) group of local observers, said while the day was "calm, fairly orderly," the problem with the voters registration list was the biggest snag of the day.

"People's names are on the [voter] lists outside but not inside the [polling station], or not on any lists at all," she said.

Phillips said observers also witnessed several incidents of political party poll watchers known as mandataires with badges that did not correspond to their voter identification numbers.

"They turn or hide their badges," she said.

Still, the mandataires, who were at the center of last year's controversy, were much less of an issue this time around.

READ MORE: Haiti voters set to elect a new president in the midst of hurricane recovery efforts

While there were no major security concerns reported, Haiti National Police did make 43 arrests, a spokesman said. Among the incidents: an attempt to burn down a voting center in Port Margot.

The day began slowly, with committed voters arriving at polling places as early as 5 a.m., an hour before the scheduled opening of polls. By 6:08 a.m., voting centers in Petionville had not yet begun to allow voters in. Poll workers inside were still counting ballots to ensure they had the correct number, and posting lists on the walls of polling stations for voters to confirm their names.

Many hoped the vote would finally complete the first round of the presidential race, and said they looked forward to a legitimate government in place in Haiti.

"I came to vote today for change, to have a beautiful Haiti, to put an end to this rising cost of living," said Dieunet Joseph, 50, first in line at Lycee Petionville where former Haiti President Michel Martelly and his wife, Sophia, would cast their ballots after 8 a.m. in Petionville.

Martelly noted that the election limbo had gone on too long.

While a number of polls did not open at the 6 a.m. start time, observers say 96 percent of the 1,534 voting centers were opened by 7 a.m.

Four voting centers had problems opening. Two, in the town of Vallieres in the Northeast region, finally started the voting at 2 p.m. after porters crossed a rising river on foot with ballot boxes. Voters in Roseaux on the outskirts of Matthew-struck Grand'Anse, however, weren't as fortunate. Bad weather and the river prevented a helicopter from landing that would have allowed voting to go on.

Berlanger said the delayed vote isn't enough to impact the preliminary results of the presidential race, which he said would be available "in a maximum of eight days."

While he said the elections body could not yet estimate turnout, Berlanger commended the participation of voters in the hurricane-battered southern region. Voters, he said, came out in large numbers that may rival the turnout in places not hit by Matthew when it made landfall in Haiti on Oct. 4.

Even so, frustrations ran high for some voters.

In Martissant, where voters were finally allowed in at 6:38 a.m. Calixte Edme, 52, said the delay was an irregularity that did not bode well for the process. Still, the unemployed father of two who arrived at the polls at 5:30 a.m. said he planned to wait it out because he needed to vote.

"If I don't vote, it's like I don't hope for anything serious for my country," he said. "We're living in a country where we don't have a serious government. It doesn't make sense. For almost two years, we've been trying to elect a president and we can't. We have to give this country another image."

The country deployed nearly 13,000 Haitian National Police and United Nations police officers to keep watch over Election Day. Gary Desrosiers, with the Haiti National Police, confirmed that police arrested "several individuals on Saturday night with several national identification cards." The cards are also used for voting.

"To whom do these cards belong? What is their objective? One person can't have that many cards on them," Desrosiers said.

At a voting center in Kenscoff, supervisor Fabien Francois said the only issue he registered was with the six police officers assigned there who wouldn't be able to vote because the officers did not want to provide their voting identification numbers to supervisors to send to the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP).

"I don't know how widespread the problem is, but I'm going to criticize them for that because they should be voting," Francois said, of the officers.

Of 9,400 Haiti police officers deployed for election day, only 1,880 had ensured they would be able to vote at a polling station other than their assigned one, Berlanger, the elections chief, said. He noted that in order to diminish the incidents of fraud and chaos that tainted last year's elections — when more than 900,000 poll workers were allowed to vote at any station of their choosing — the council this time opted not to provide any special authorizations for people who were not on the voter list.

"You have to have your national identification card and your name has to be on a list," Berlanger said. "It's valid for everyone."

How much of an issue the lists will become remains to be seen. Presidential candidate Jovenel Moïse addressed it only by saying that Haiti's institutions are weak, and as president he would give the country a permanent elections body to reduce such problems.

After casting his vote in Trou-du-Nord in the northeast, he called on people to head to the polls, noting that after 15 days of rain, the weather had finally let up.

"When you don't vote, you can't complain," Moïse said. "There is not a country on this earth where you can talk about development if it's not stable."

Hours after Moïse voted, his opposition rival, Jude Célestin, who had made the Oct. 25 runoff with him but denounced the result, cast his ballot.

Welcomed by a horde of media and supporters, Célestin had to fight his way the voting booth. Afterward, he was carried down the street on the shoulders of supporters.

"We're halfway though the day," Célestin said. "It's not done yet. We want people to go out and vote. It's time that, as Haitian people, we take our destiny in our own hands."

Célestin, whose refusal to participate in a runoff after the Oct. 25 vote led to a verification commission and, eventually, the decision to rerun the election, said he was concerned about reports of Haitians not finding their names on voter lists.

Among the improvements in Sunday's election: the indelible ink, a stain placed on the thumb so no one could vote twice. Also, the voting booths were studier and provided more privacy. And mandataires wore ID cards with their photos on them and were only allowed to vote where they were registered.

Haiti chose to rerun last year's presidential elections after the fraud allegations hampered runoffs, throwing the country into a political and electoral crisis. Martelly was forced to leave office without an elected successor after his five-year term ended on Feb. 7. An interim government has been in charge since then.

The international community, led by the U.S., criticized the rerun decision and announced it would not provide funding to help with the $55 million price tag. But after Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Haiti on Oct. 4 as a Category 4 storm, the U.S. softened its stance and gave the country about $5 million to help prepare damaged voting bureaus for Sunday's elections.

"This has been a Haitian statement, a much more organized Haitian election," the OAS' de Icaza said of Sunday's vote. "Let's maintain that proud moment...for the days to come. This is an opportunity."

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