Haitians lined up for national ID card. (NYT)
Port-Au-Prince (Haiti): With some candidates already crying fraud, and the delivery of voter identification cards mired in delays and confusion on Saturday, Haiti braced for one of its most pivotal presidential elections in decades.
Official public campaigning ended Friday, but hours before the first ballots were to be cast Sunday, many of the 19 candidates and their representatives took to social media and old-fashioned news conferences to question the election's fairness.
The United States ambassador, while expressing cautious optimism that balloting would be fair and orderly, raised concern that many people, especially the more than one million who have been living in tent encampments scattered across this capital city since January's earthquake, may not be aware of basic information like the location of the island nation's 11,000 polling places.
"You have people who are registered to vote in their old neighborhoods but living somewhere else," the ambassador, Kenneth H. Merten, said in an interview on Saturday. "I'm not sure that all of them know where they have to go. We will see tomorrow."
"They have been doing what they can, but I am not sure that it is enough," Mr. Merten said of the government.
With so many candidates, it appeared unlikely that any one would capture the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff, which is set for Jan. 16.
The winner will confront a spreading cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,500 people since mid-October, and the complex question of how Haiti can most effectively recover from the earthquake and best spend several billion dollars of foreign aid due in the coming years.
Basic services in this, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, remain in disarray, including those related to the election, and worries abound that the succession of calamities here has sapped the will of the 4.7 million registered voters to turn out.
For many potential voters, the challenges have been steep. Less than half of the more than 400,000 new and replacement national identification cards necessary for voting are thought to have been distributed, leading to intense frustration.
People waited in long lines on Saturday to pick up new or replacement identification cards, and many people said they had already endured a confusing odyssey to apply for them.
As one office in the Pétionville neighborhood closed at the designated hour, people still in line screamed in anger and disbelief. Workers tossed away several receipts that had been turned in to pick up the cards and carted away boxes of cards they had failed to give out.
"I have tried seven times to get the card, but without results," said Chantal François, 32.
Mike Paul, 22, fumed as he described how he had lost his card in the earthquake when he fled a collapsing university building.
He had gotten a job working for the national electoral council, to help count ballots, Mr. Paul said, and needed the card to vote and to open a bank account so he could be paid for his work.
He described making trip after trip to the identification card office, getting different instructions each time.
"This is not a country," Mr. Paul said. "Whether I get it or not, the election will happen anyway and I may be the loser."
The campaign's final week was marked by scattered, but for Haiti, manageable violence.
In a province south of here, gunfire ended a rally on Friday for Michel Martelly, a popular singer known as "Sweet Micky," who is among a handful of candidates considered front-runners. Mr. Martelly said in a Twitter message on Saturday morning that one person had been killed and one had been hurt, but the provincial authorities could not be reached to confirm his report.
Haiti has a long history of corrupt elections, and although international observers have been working with Haitian officials to ensure the integrity of this year's vote, several candidates have denounced the process. "There is going to be massive fraud," Mr. Martelly said. "We expect it and are prepared for it."
Mirlande Manigat, whose husband served as president, and who hopes to become Haiti's first elected female leader, said she had heard that 500,000 ballots were in storage somewhere, ready to deny her victory.
"Only fraud can prevent me from becoming president," Ms. Manigat told reporters on Friday.
Without naming names, Mr. Merten, the ambassador, said he believed some candidates were crying fraud early to explain away a loss later.
Colin Granderson, chief of a team of election observers from the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community, said in an interview on Saturday that he was unaware of fraudulent ballots and noted a tradition of rumormongering in Haiti around election time.
Although he predicted that Sunday's voting would "all in all, for the most part, go fairly quietly," he expressed concern that many poll workers had not received adequate training.
Uncertified results are not to be reported until Dec. 7, and Mr. Granderson said he feared that between now and then political parties observing the voting and ballot counting would declare their individual candidates winners, which could ignite fraud claims. "Because of the long period of suspense, I am sure a number of candidates will be saying they won and that could ratchet up the climate," he said.
Mr. Merten noted that the level of violence surrounding Haiti's election has been minimal compared with that in other troubled countries. He, like other observers, pinned his hopes on the government's promises of a fair election. "If it works as advertised," he said, "it should work reasonably well."
Story first published:
November 28, 2010 19:57 IST