Haiti heads to polls, holds breath

2015-10-25 09:04
Staff from a polling stations receive their last training for the general elections at a polling station in Port-au-Prince. (Hector Retamal, AFP)

Staff from a polling stations receive their last training for the general elections at a polling station in Port-au-Prince. (Hector Retamal, AFP)

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Port-au-Prince - Haitians go to the polls Sunday to vote for a new president, the climax of a contest heaving with 54 candidates in a country notorious for chronic political instability.

There was something of a carnival atmosphere in the last few days leading up to the vote, with candidates embarking on colourful parades and processions in the capital Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in a last-gasp bid to grab a few more precious votes.

Despite Haiti's propensity for election violence - police will deploy 10 000 officers, backed by 5 000 from the UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH - many people were in a buoyant mood on the eve of voting.

"Countries which are friends of Haiti will come after the election to bring their support to the country, to do business, to invest," declared Willem Genisca, a university language teacher.

"We'll create jobs, it's a beautiful thing."

That optimism is commendable in a country that has failed to find democratic stability since the end of the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship in 1986.

Catastrophic earthquake

Nearly five years after President Michel Martelly came to power, this first-round presidential vote is the only one of several recent elections in Haiti - the poorest country in the Americas - to be staged within the established timetable.

Martelly, a pop singer and political novice, assumed office in 2011, the year after a catastrophic earthquake killed more than 200 000 and left upwards of 1.5 million living on the streets.

The magnitude 7.0 quake flattened most buildings in the capital, including the presidential palace, and five years on more than 85 000 people still live in makeshift camps, according to Amnesty International.

'Dire conditions'

One of the few to emerge from the crowded presidential field is Jude Celestin, of the LAPEH party, who was eliminated from the second round in the controversial 2010 vote following a recount by the Organization of American States and is considered the frontrunner this time.

"This time they will not steal the election," supporter Lucksenson Morel said at a noisy rally.

But there is also a groundswell of support in some areas for Maryse Narcisse, a physician and longtime activist of the Fanmi Lavalas party.

Narcisse has the powerful and very public backing of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- and for some Haitians, that is enough. Aristide, a divisive figure who returned from exile in 2011, is revered among the many poor in the capital.

On foot, by motorbike or crammed into cars, a Fanmi Lavalas parade snaked through the crowded streets of Cite Soleil, a deeply impoverished slum neighboorhood of Port-au-Prince.

"Aristide our king, Maryse president," chanted supporters who mobbed an open-air vehicle carrying the duo.

"Conditions are dire in the ghetto, basic needs aren't met," said Pierre-Richard Backer.

"That's the change president Aristide wanted to bring about, but nobody gave him this chance. This is why tonight we'll do a patriotic vigil, to rally the people until 6:00 am, and to fulfill the country's mission towards to democracy."

Democratic progress?

But the abundance of presidential hopefuls is not a sign of democratic health, experts say.

A dozen or so of the candidates are former lawmakers or leaders of established political parties, but many others are unknowns to the average Haitian and the month of campaigning has been lackluster.

Only a handful of candidates have even released a platform outlining what they plan to do if elected.

Sunday will also see voting for numerous legislative and local posts, presenting something of a logistical headache for vote organisers.

"The debates were shallow. The candidates only spoke in generalities. None of them showed that they are in a position to manage the situation well," said Haitian economist Kesner Pharel.

Whoever takes over from Martelly on February 7 will face huge challenges and a humanitarian emergency.

Six million of Haiti's 10 million people live in extreme poverty, getting by on less than $2.5 a day.

Read more on:    haiti

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