Patience, calm urged as votes counted in Haiti

Video: Elections in Haiti

Haiti prepares for its high-stakes, highly anticipated elections. Video by Jacqueline Charles.
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Haiti prepares for its high-stakes, highly anticipated elections. Video by Jacqueline Charles.

Haiti’s elections officials Sunday thanked voters for a relatively calm election day and appealed for patience as they try to figure out who the winners are in the balloting for presidential, legislative and local mayoral elections.

There was only one place where the vote could not take place as planned, attorney Mosler Georges said. Ballots and other voting material destined for the northern rural area of Borgne were set on fire late Saturday afternoon. Attempts to fly replacements in via helicopter failed, he said, after the chopper could not land because of mud.

An appeal for calm came Sunday evening, three hours after most polls in the high-stakes balloting had closed on schedule at 4 p.m. after getting off to a slow start. At some places, voting didn’t start until well after the 6 a.m. start time, even though ballots and elections workers were in place.

While Georges and Provisional Electoral Council President Pierre-Louis Opont restrained themselves from making a lot of observations about the day, the head of a 125-person Organization of American States Observer Mission said Haitians were beginning to take steps in determining their destiny.

“Of course, we have to wait. It’s not finished, but I have a positive expectation that we’re moving into the right direction,” said Brazilian diplomat Celso Amorim, who headed the mission.

United Nations security forces reported that 224 people were arrested, including a candidate for the lower chamber of Deputies and two Haiti National Police officers. Firearms were seized and there were no reported election-related fatalities. The number of voting centers vandalized or reporting security issues was down compared to Aug. 9, when 13 percent of the 1,508 voting centers were forced to suspend balloting because of armed violence, voter intimidation and irregularities.

The improvements over Aug. 9, Amorim said, was “a good step for the Haitian people because it’s the Haitian people who have to decide their destiny. The international community is only here to help when it can. But it is very important that the opinion and the voice of the Haitian people is heard.”

Whether that is the case, it will take at least 10 days to know. Opont, the elections head, told the Miami Herald last week that preliminary results could take longer given travel time for tally sheets to arrive in Port-au-Prince and the more than 6,000 candidates involved, including 54 vying for the presidency.

As the counting gets under way, that will be the true test of how the elections were and whether the election-related violence many envisioned actually takes place. At least four presidential candidates said they believe they received the necessary votes Sunday to win the first round outright, if not, one of two runoff spots in a Dec. 27 vote.

Nevertheless, the elections were less chaotic and calmer than the Aug. 9 legislative first round. The United Nations Stabilization Mission was much more visible, and Haitian police much more pro-active in arresting those trying to engage in electoral fraud.

“Everybody got their chance to vote, to find their names in most of the places, and from what I see, a good turnout,” said Didier Fils-Aime, a senatorial candidate. “The lesson to be learned from today is that when the population wants to go out and vote for their president, they will make sure that it’s done in an orderly fashion.”

Still, the day didn’t go off without a few hitches. At a voting center in Rue Vaillant, doors opened well after 8 a.m. when police finally arrived.

Refusing to be discouraged, determined voter Michel Jean, 42, said he had no plans to forgo the process.

“It’s presidential elections,” he said. “They are important for the country.”

Things also got off to a tense start at the Lycee Pétionville voting center were President Michel Martelly and aspiring successor Jude Célestin cast ballots less than 10 minutes apart.

By 10 a.m., however, the lines were moving and votes were being cast.

“So far, things are going well — so far” a confident Célestin told the Herald. “But it is still early … and we are watching them.”

Martelly said he, too, was satisfied with the day.

“So far it’s great,” Martelly told the Herald after voting in a cramped third-floor classroom. “I feel like people are starting to understand that the destiny of Haiti is in their hands. I love it and I hope that this is a new way of doing things in Haiti; people coming out and vote.”

Amorim said he could not say what the voter turnout was, but by 1 p.m. it seemed higher than August. Still, at some centers, voters were outnumbered by political party observers.

Also observing Sunday’s vote were three members of the U.S. Congress. U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, and John Conyers Jr., D-Michigan, joined House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, as part of a congressional delegation to offer oversight of the elections.

“We want the Haitian people to know that we care, and feel that every single person should have the right to vote,” Wilson said on the way to polling stations. “We don’t want anybody intimidating them or blocking them from voting.”

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