Banana farmer wins Haiti presidency, according to preliminary results

A 48-year-old banana plantation owner with no government experience has won Haiti’s rerun presidential election, Haitian officials said Monday.

Jovenel Moïse, a candidate under the political party started by former President Michel Martelly, received 55.67 percent of the votes in the Nov. 20 elections, beating out 26 other candidates including opposition leader Jude Célestin, who finished a distant second with 19.52 percent.

The preliminary results announced Monday by Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) came after an hours long debate among members behind closed doors and eight days after voters went to the polls. Results of the previous election, held Oct. 25, 2015, were tossed out after opposition candidates, human rights and religious groups claimed widespread fraud. The allegations triggered violent protests, calls for a recount and eventually led to a provisional government.

Speaking moments after the announcement at a luxury Petionville hotel, Moïse reiterated elements of his campaign stump speech. Surrounded by members of Martelly’s Haiti Bald Headed Party (PHTK) and wife Martine, he called on Haitians in and out of the country to help him mobilize the country’s resources to put “food on the plates of the people and money in their pockets.”

While the selection of Moïse, who won with a margin wide enough to eliminate a runoff, means Haiti will have an elected president for the first time in a year should the results hold and he is sworn in on Feb. 7, some fear his first-round win in an election with a 21 percent voter turnout will not guarantee political stability.

Also clouding the political waters is the disagreement among the CEP;s nine members. Three of four members who initially refused to sign off on the elections results, in the end did not validate the results.

“It will be difficult for Jovenel, “ said political analyst Fritz Dorvilier, who teaches sociology at the State University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince. “You will have a profound uniting of the opposition; they will do all that is possible to not accept the results.”

Dorvilier, who believes a second round would have helped lowered rising tensions and been the “politically correct” thing to do, said he worries Moïse’s win will further “plunge Haiti deeper into political instability.”

“Not a lot of people voted. The situation has become paradoxical,” he noted. “You have the majority of the population who doesn’t believe in elections and the instability will plunge the country deeper into poverty.

“We can have situation where every day you could have protests, and at some point the international community will have to take a decision, “ Dorvilier said. “If it accepts the results will it manage by diplomacy or force?”

In a call for calm prior to the release of the results, provisional Haitian President Jocelerme Privert noted that his interim administration had pulled off the election against the odds. This included a “disastrous” financial situation and the refusal by the United States and other donors to help Haiti underwrite the election’s $55 million price tag after the U.S. publicly opposed the recommendations of a verification commission to redo the vote.

Privert was elected by the parliament on Feb. 14 after Martelly ended his five-year term without an elected successor. Privert’s 120-day term expired on June 14 before elections were held, leaving his powers in question and Haiti’s fate uncertain.

The redo was finally held on Nov. 20 — six weeks after a deadly Hurricane Matthew made landfall on the country’s southern peninsula as a Category 4 storm. The country suffered $2 billion in damages including washed out crops and roads, and a humanitarian crisis affecting 1.4 million Haitians.

“Arriving at the Nov. 20 election wasn’t easy,” Privert said Monday before the results were announced. “Despite the distressful situation we were confronted with, we made the right choice when we took the decision to organize the elections... Everyone recognized that it was a success for the country.”

Still the election had one of the lowest turnouts for a Haitian presidential vote. Many voters had become fatigued by a process that had officially begun in March 2015. There were several postponements and five campaign launches with half of the initial 54 candidates eventually deciding not to run. At least five of them coalesced around Célestin, the former head of the state construction agency.

But in the end it was Moïse, a relatively unknown serial entrepreneur until he was tapped by Martelly to succeed him, who would be declared the winner of the race.

Financed by well-moneyed members of the business community and supported by the same Spanish firm, Ostos and Sola, that helped Martelly with his 2010 presidential bid, Moïse went by the moniker Nèg Bannann nan (banana man) as he sold voters on a vision of turning a deforested Haiti into a banana-producing republic. Championing agriculture, he promised Haitians he would “put the rivers, the sun, the soil and the people to work.”

With mounting tensions and reports of gunshots and tires burning overnight around the capital, Privert reminded the population and candidates that they have a right to contest the results through the courts —not on the streets.

“The use of violence can only spoil the fruits of this beautiful day that we all built on the 20th of November, 2016,” he said.

While the vote, this time around, was better organized, better run and free from violence, it hasn’t been free from accusations of vote-buying and fraud.

Members of the CEP themselves seemed split over the results, spending hours hold up in a Port-au-Prince hotel while journalists and members of the Organization of American States elections observation mission waited at their headquarters.

After finally arriving at the CEP headquarters at 10:22 p.m., council President Leopold Berlanger and Robinson Cherilus, the head of the tabulation center went through great pains to detail how the votes were tallied.

“The tabulation center has only one mission, to tabulate the votes of the electorates,” Belanger said.

During the week long tallying of votes at 10 percent were disregarded - higher than either the amount in last year’s ballot-stuffing Aug. 9 legislative election or the contested presidential vote. Still, political parties demanded more be cast aside as tempers flared inside the Vote Tabulation Center.

In the days since the polls closed, supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas political party took to the streets in protests, threatening to burn the capital if their candidate, Maryse Narcisse, isn’t declared the winner. Narcisse came in fourth place with 8.99 percent of the votes behind former Sen. Jean-Charles Moïse with 11.04 percent, according to the results.

On Friday, seven senators issued a letter to the CEP calling on it to apply the electoral law and refuse ballots where voter lists — proof that someone had voted — were not properly documented with either a signature or fingerprint. Demanding that the results be postponed until those steps can be taken, the senators denounced what they called “a set of irregularities and fraud,” during the balloting. Among their additional complaints: the last-minute relocation of several voting centers and voters.

Senators’ criticism was similar to that of Fanmi Lavalas attorney Gervais Charles and Célestin, who issued letters last week as votes were being tallied. Célestin reminded officials that “only signatures or digital prints” could guarantee the authenticity of the votes and any tally sheets lacking either should not be considered in the results.

Célestin, who had refused to participate in this second round of elections until sweeping changes were made, has three days to file any challenge. The electoral courts will have about two weeks to consider the challenge before the nine-member elections council make the results final on Dec. 29.