They sat behind tiny wooden school desks underneath a gigantic flamboyant tree in a dirt-poor section of this historic city waiting to be convinced. The visiting candidate, making a last-minute pitch for votes on an unusually calm day, did his best.
“Despite everything we all know that’s happening in the commune, if you don’t go out on the 25th of October to vote for the person you want, the choice will be made for you,” Wilner Rene, one of 16 candidates on the ballot to represent Arcahaie in the lower Chamber of Deputies, said to the tepid crowd. “It will be a loss for Arcahaie.”
As Haiti’s 5.8 million voters head to the polls Sunday to cast ballots for first round of presidential elections, legislative runoffs and municipal elections, longtime political observers and Haitians say how the day unfolds will be as unpredictable as the winners at the ballot box.
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“We have a day that’s being accompanied by a lot of uncertainty,” said Pierre Esperance, executive director of National Human Rights Defense Network/Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNNDH). “We wish it all goes well and people go out to vote en masse. But we have no confidence that the day will go well.”
Until now, Esperance and others say, there has been no public announcement of sanctions being issued against police, prosecutors and justices of the peace who failed to prevent the violence and electoral fraud that marred the first round of legislative elections on Aug. 9.
The deep uncertainty comes amid troubling security concerns and despite assurances by Haitian election officials and police that they have taken steps to allow for a peaceful, inclusive and transparent vote on Sunday.
Despite their lack of confidence in the credibility and transparency of the process, civil society leaders and human rights activists encouraged Haitians to go to the polls.
“Since 1990, we’ve had five presidential elections in this country and in all five the elected president always needed the backup of the streets, which is against democratic principles,” said Viles Alizar in charge of programs for RNDDH. “The elected president never comes from the ballot box. The vote of the people is not respected and we have to break this tradition.”
Concerns about election day violence come amid reports of arms being distributed and complaints by candidates of rock throwing and intimidation by rival supporters at their campaign rallies. There are also concerns that recent localized incidents of violence indicate higher probability for disturbances on Sunday. For example, at least 15 people, including two pregnant women, have died in pre-electoral violence in the densely populated slum of Cite Soleil. In Arcahaie, frustrations over a controversial presidential decree, blocked roads and birthed weeks of violent demonstrations.
On Friday, Prime Minister Evens Paul announced that an agreement had been reached with the municipality in which the prized beachfront properties that had been removed from its tax rolls would be returned.
Residents, however, remained concerned about whether the tentative peace would hold until Sunday.
“We want to vote, but we are worried, and we are scared,” said Rabel Exantus, 29.
We have a day that’s being accompanied by a lot of uncertainty,
Pierre Esperance, human activist
At best, political observers say, the violence will remain at bay, allowing the elections to conclude at 4 p.m. with few irregularities. At worse, the country will experience a repeat of Aug. 9, or November 2010 when at mid-day, 12 of the 18 presidential candidates cried fraud and demanded cancellation of the vote.
“This electoral cycle 2015 is crucial,” said Sandra Honoré, head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH. “It is important for Haiti to demonstrate that she is indeed on that democratic path and that she is doing everything that is possible to ensure that the long-suffering people of Haiti are able to get representation that will work in their interests.”
Violence, she said, has not place in an election.
“People need to be able to depend on elected representation and therefore should have the opportunity to freely make the choice of those persons whom they wish to represent them and to work in their interests,” Honoré said.
Pierre-Louis Opont, head of the Provisonal Electoral Council or CEP, said the council has been working to ensure there are no issues with payroll, voting centers are opened on time and ballots and personnel are in place.
“But the rest,” he conceded, “depends on security.”
“I am praying to God that the police keep its word,” Opont added, stressing that securing the voting day is the job of the Haiti National Police. “But I am comfortable by the effort the CEP has made to correct a number of things that needed to be corrected between these two rounds, like the criticism over not getting the political parties their credentials on time.”
Opont said police share a huge part of the blame in the 13 percent of the 1,508 voting centers that had the vote suspended, and will be return Sunday.
“The Haitian police was passive and MINUSTAH was invisible,” he said, noting that the “absence of MINUSTAH created a psychosis of fear.”
My challenge is to let the HNP do these elections like they are able to do it because they will have 7,000 officers out there,
UN Police Commissioner Serge Therriault
“For me, the visible presence of MINUSTAH, the active presence of the police keeping watch, noting the license plates of vehicles, asking people for their ID, is sufficient to keep the calm,” he said. “If police are present, there won’t be a lot of aggression against the population and the vote will happen in tranquility.”
Regardless of the results, Opont said, the volume of voters who turn out is important for the legitimacy of the winners.
“The people are interested in voting,” he said. “But we know that the first shot that’s fired, everyone will take off; it’s normal,” he said.
Haiti National Police spokesman Frantz Lerebours said the HNP has implemented several new measures. Among them: deploying officers three days ahead of Sunday’s vote, increasing police visibility and response time with motorcycles and four-wheeled drive vehicles and ensuring that ballots are delivered to voting centers on time.
“We’ve re-enforced the controls,” he said.
But Esperance, the human rights activists, says issues within the police and human rights allegations over a newly created specialized unit known as BOID could undermine any controls.
“It’s not under the control of police headquarters,” he said. “On the 25th of October, they should put BOID aside because it is working on behalf of people in power who are running in the elections.”
Last week, officers upset over recent police killings issued an unsigned note to local media saying they will be standing “arms crossed” election day and will do nothing.
Lerebours said police officers don’t have a right to protest and that the police Inspector General’s Office, the police of the police, will be in the field ensuring that officers conduct themselves professionally. He acknowledged that the police chief is aware of the allegations over BOID.
People need to be able to depend on elected representation,
UN Special Representative for Haiti Sandre Honoré
Serge Therriault, the U.N. Police Commissioner for MINUSTAH, sad he welcomes the efforts being made by the HNP to secure Sunday. He was informed, for example, that 50 police officers were suspended for three months without pay, for infractions around the Aug. 9 elections, including not showing up for work and traveling with candidates.
We want to vote, but we are worried, and we are scared
Rabel Exantus, voter
Therriault said the request for MINUSTAH to be more visible on election day is a complex challenge.
“My challenge is to let the HNP do these elections like they are able to do it because they will have 7,000 officers out there,” he said. “We have one-third of the resources that the HNP is able to put out there. So we are not going to make the difference; we will make a difference but the HNP is going to do it.”
Still, with a lot more problematic “red zones” that could pose a security threat, Therriault said more U.N. police will be deployed as well as military troops.
“This time around, they are deployed in more departments, being more in the field than into their barracks waiting for a last resort type of call,” he said.
Several presidential candidates, including opposition candidates Jean-Henry Ceant and Jude Celestin, have denounced the violence, as well as government-backed candidate Jovenel Moise. Celestin, who led a crowd of supporters through the streets of Petionville and downtown Port-au-Prince neighborhoods Thursday, and Moise called for a peaceful turnout. They agreed that electoral violence has never gotten Haiti far. But like their fellow candidates, and human rights activists, they urged voters to guards their ballots.