Campaigning for Sunday’s presidential and legislative elections in Haiti ended with a last-minute rush for votes and tension on the streets.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Haiti’s chaotic, tension-filled election campaign, which began as a war of graffiti and posters two months ago, ended Friday with marathon rallies, helicopter high jinks, wild accusations — and voter apathy.
“It’s still early and I don’t know which person I am going to vote for and even then I don’t know if I’m going to vote,” said Ferdinand Daniel, 29, a victim of the Jan. 12 earthquake who now lives in a camp.
How many Haitians will show up when polls open at 6 a.m. Sunday, and who among the crowded and colorful field will emerge as leaders, remain far from certain. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff for the two top finishers will be held in January.
“Being the handsomenest guy or gal, or being the sentimental favorite doesn’t win elections,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a political strategist who has consulted in elections in the neighboring Dominican Republic and has been following the Haiti campaign since it began in September. “It’s organizing.”
On Friday, it was all about the mad rush to get that one last vote in a high-stakes election where 19 names appear on the presidential ballots although two candidates have already withdrawn. Some 900 candidates are also running for 110 legislative seats in parliament.
“Lots of fraud is going on,” candidate Jean-Henry Céant charged on his way to campaign stops in Arcahaie and Cite Soleil.
Accusations of fraud and vote-buying have been rampant, but on Friday it was all about the last-minute free T-shirt, and even bags of rice that candidates distributed to potential voters. A truck promoting presidential candidate and former minister of social affairs Yves Cristalin handed out posters and rice along a traffic-clogged street in Carrefour.
It was also a day of news conferences, and calls for Haitians to vote.
Musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly warned — without details — that weapons had been distributed, and continued his attack on presumed front-runner Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady and opposition leader. Manigat denied accusations from Martelly and Céant that she had made a secret pact with President René Préval.
Concern about violence caused the Haitian National Police to suspend gun permits from Saturday night until Wednesday, restrict alcohol sales, order all restaurants closed from 8 p.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Monday and ban motorcycles from the roads.
Gaillot Dorsinvil, president of the electoral commission, appealed for calm and warned against publishing election polls over the weekend.
On the campaign trail, Jude Célestin, the candidate of Préval’s INITE party who has refused interviews, used a stage in Leogane to declare that he has refused to attack other candidates although they had criticized him and he was shot at during the campaign.
On the road, Manigat supporters turned the streets of Carrefour into a carnival while fans of industrialist Charles Henri-Baker brought traffic to a standstill in the capital suburb.
They were not alone.
Many other campaigns drove through Carrefour, where presidential caravans for both Martelly and Célestin drove pass rival Manigat’s campaign float. Manigat, running late to her rally, missed her competitors’ convoys.
Célestin’s arrival in Carrefour came minutes after he scored a last-minute election coup. Izolan, one of Haiti’s most popular rappers, announced his support for Célestin at the Leogane rally. “They always said if Wyclef were president, Izolan would be prime minister,” Izolan told the crowd. “Well, if Jude Célestin is president, Izolan and all of the country’s youth have a door to go knock on.”
But Izolan’s endorsement came with a caveat.
“If he wins and doesn’t do anything for the people, I will be the first to say `Down with the president,’ ” he said.
Célestin, who has had led a 100-vehicle caravan on a 14-day campaign tour, welcomed the endorsement.
“We are open to everyone and we will call everyone,” he said.
But it’s unclear whether his message of unity will resonate with Haitians. Even before the cholera epidemic left more than 1,500 Haitians dead and tens of thousands infected, Haitians were disillusioned.
And some have become resentful of the lavish display of wealth in the final days of campaigning: Célestin’s party has flooded cities such as Arcahaie and Leogane with thousands of Célestin posters and rented a helicopter bearing the party’s green and yellow motif. Meanwhile, an airplane delivered pro-Célestin messages.
Célestin’s campaign was not alone in renting aircraft.
Leslie Voltaire rented a small plane and helicopter, which on Thursday dropped Voltaire’s campaign posters on the manicured lawns of the crumbled presidential palace.
Haiti’s finance minister has denied accusations that government funds are financing Préval-backed candidates, and Provisional Electoral Council spokesman Richardson Dumel said “no citizen or political party has brought a serious complaint before the CEP that government cars or funds are being used in campaigns.”
By day’s end, all campaigns stopped in the West, Haiti’s most populated region dominated by Port-au-Prince. It accounts for 40 percent of the 4.6 million registered voters, thousands of whom were still trying to get their ID cards on Friday.
Many voters expressed mixed views of the candidates.
“She’s an intellectual who can bring value to the country,” said 23-year-old Juanito Paillant, a Manigat supporter.