By JACQUELINE CHARLES
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Haitians heeding international calls to chart a new course in Sunday’s presidential and legislative elections are being confronted with old concerns from violence to possible voter fraud.
With the elections just days away, concerns are mounting over incidents of violence, the timely distribution of voter identification cards for an estimated 385,000 newly registered Haitians and the recruitment and training of voting bureau supervisors and poll workers.
“No leader or presidential candidate has come out strongly against the violence though they have signed the Code of Conduct,” said Colin Granderson, head of the joint Organization of American States-Caribbean Community electoral observer mission.
There are 19 presidential candidates on the ballot, and more than 900 for parliament in the high-stakes election. Winners will have to contend with a deadly cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,500 Haitians since mid-October, and the ongoing effects of the January earthquake. At least 1.5 million people are still living under tents and tarps.
On Thursday, long lines began forming at some gas stations in the quake-ravaged capital and workers at one station began boarding up in case of election violence. In Cap-Haitien, presidential candidate Mirlande Manigat’s rally was cut short after the crowd began throwing rocks and bottles, and shots were fired. The candidate was not harmed.
Earlier this week, a scuffle involving two presidential camps ended in at least two deaths and several injuries after a deadly firefight broke out in the Grande Anse region between members of Jude Célestin’s entourage and supporters of Charles-Henri Baker.
Célestin is Haitian President René Préval’s pick, and Baker is an industrialist who came in third to Préval in the 2006 presidential elections. The incident has sparked a war of accusations between both camps, with Célestin supporters saying they were ambushed with a bullet barely missing the candidate. Baker said two of his supporters died and between five and six were wounded with one stabbed in the back.
Isolated tensions between partisans of political parties have been mounting all week throughout Haiti. Rocks and bottles are being thrown at rallies and shots are being fired.
On Wednesday, as thousands of people rallied peacefully for Célestin in Cap-Haitien, 13 miles south in the town of Grande-Rivière-du-Nord, violence broke out between his INITE supporters backing a candidate for the lower chamber of parliament, and supporters of the candidate from the Alternative political party.
The day before in Grande-Rivière, the justice of the peace was called in by the local Office of National Identification after 60 voting cards disappeared. The cards were later found, Joseph Jean, the justice of the peace, told The Miami Herald. They were hidden inside a bathroom in city hall, where the ONI office is located.
Joseph said he doesn’t have “any idea” who stole the boxes or what they intended to do with them. But another official, who declined to be quoted by name because of the rising tensions, said the cards are often used to record “fake” votes by individuals working for a party or candidate.
The problem of the missing cards in the Cap-Haitien area comes amid rumors that several political parties are paying voters $50 and up to support their candidates.
Philippe Augustin, the director of Haiti’s electoral registry, said there are accusations circulating of fraud being committed, from vote buying to fake ballots already being prepared. Augustin, disputing a French press report where he was quoted saying fraud will happen everywhere, said the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) has put everyone on notice that it is prepared to tackle fraud.
“I cannot ignore the rumors,” he said, noting that several anti-fraud security measures, including an audit of ballots, have been adopted. “We don’t want to be taken by surprise, so we are preparing.”
A number of anti-fraud measures have been put in place to help ensure that Sunday’s vote is fair and transparent, Haitian and international officials say. They range from the way the final tally sheets are handled and delivered to the counting center after the voting bureaus close, to a special barcode to verify voter identification before voting. There are also measures to detect if the tally envelope has been tempered with.
Meanwhile, 120 observers from the OAS-CARICOM Joint Electoral Observation Mission will be deployed to observe the vote at more than 11,000 polling stations. There are also 6,000 Haitian observers. The European Union has sent a seven-member election team, and a U.S. congressional delegation plans to tour voting bureaus.
Still, the international community has expressed concern about transparency, especially in the recruitment of supervisors and poll workers. The replacement of more experienced workers has created delays and demonstrations throughout the country.
“There must be transparency in the hiring and training of poll workers,” U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten said this week.
Granderson has called on the party agents “to be extremely vigilant on the day of the vote and especially during the vote count in order to effectively protect the interests of their candidates and parties.”
But while the measures provide some comfort, Granderson said he is still greatly concerned by the slow pace of card distribution, which began Nov. 8.
At one point, the OAS had to ship the consignment of cards to a local ONI office for distribution. Thursday, long, chaotic lines continued to form at satellite offices in the capital and in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city.
“I want to vote, but if I don’t get the card I can’t. I guess I’ll get it after the election,” said Adeline Jean-Alphonse, 21, who had been waiting for five hours and still no card.
ONI officials say they have opened several satellite offices in the capital to distribute cards. Cards must be obtained by 4 p.m. Saturday.
There are about 413,000 cards to be distributed including new and replacement cards. It’s feared that less than half of the cards may have been distributed. There are about 4.6 million voters on the registration roll, including those who perished in the quake.
“I still cannot get a fix on the number of cards that have been put in the hands of voters,” Granderson said. “Not getting the identification cards into the hands of the applicants could very well disenfranchise a large number of potential voters as well as add a new source of grievances, a development which should be avoided at all costs in the present volatile political climate.”
How naive, or criminal can the world community be?!
Almost 12,000 polling places and a possible 5,000 observers! In actual fact, this will probably end up at about 2,000 on voting day.
I spoke to a Washington group, last week, and the said their previous elections saw 13 observer teams in Haiti. This time they might have 3!
We have already seen a truckload of counterfeit ballots, guns and ammunition intercepted by the National Police as Preval/INITE members tried to bring these from the Dominican Republic to Port-au-Prince.
There are moves to attack a number of presidential candidates. Mirlande Manigat will not be among these, nor will Celestin. Both of these have CIMO and Palace security teams surrounding them at all times.
Cynics would see a message here.
One would expect MINUSTAH to supply some security to the leading candidates, but this has not happened.
We are headed for a potential disaster, of major proportions as the International Community sticks its collective head in the ground and says it is in control.
No one is in control, unless it is Rene Preval and his band of criminals.
They will stop at nothing to retain power.
If they lose there will be a lot of arrests.