PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The filing deadline for Haiti’s presidential elections isn’t until Aug. 7, but many of the potential contenders are playing coy about their plans and speculation about who will run is rampant.
The political jockeying for one of the toughest jobs in the hemisphere began well before the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake. But it has intensified as rumors fly over a possible bid by Haiti-born multiplatinum musician Wyclef Jean, secret polling by foreign powers in search of a new face to lead Haiti’s reconstruction and candidacy declarations by some Haitian diplomats and government officials.
The potential candidates are stirring up so much interest that the subject even came up Tuesday at a U.S. congressional hearing on Haiti’s rebuilding efforts. The House later approved a $2.8 billion Haiti aid package that is part of a war spending bill on its way to President Barack Obama for approval.
During the hearing, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a stalwart supporter of the quake-ravaged Caribbean nation, asked U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah what he was hearing about the scheduled Nov. 28 presidential elections.
“Can you give us any idea of who might be running? Because I got a call from Haiti Ambassador to the U.S. Raymond Joseph that he is a candidate,” Rangel said.
Shah chuckled slightly and responded: “I’ve heard a lot of rumors; it’s best for me not to speculate.”
Said Rangel: “I certainly hope they are just rumors!”
In an interview with The Miami Herald a day earlier, Joseph, who is also the uncle of Jean, would not confirm his candidacy, saying only that “I am thinking about it.”
Rumors of Joseph’s candidacy swirled two weeks ago when he traveled to Haiti to meet with Haitian President Rene Preval, presumably to hand in his resignation. He never got the meeting.
As Joseph was making the rounds in the capital, so was his nephew, Jean, who immigrated to the United States as a child and whose visit to check on his birth certificate in the city of Croix-des-Bouquet immediately sparked political buzz about a presidential run.
“It’s a huge decision,” Jean told The Miami Herald about the prospect of his running. “The decision is not final.”
Jean could help generate a high turnout among Haiti’s disenchanted youth, said Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born political scientist at the University of Virginia.
While Jean has long used his status as a superstar producer and hip-hop artist to help Haiti even before the quake, his charity, Yele Haiti Foundation, has come under scrutiny over how it spends money donated to it on behalf of Haiti.
A recent attempt by Jean to reach out to the population by gathering 200 people and handing each $7 was met with some criticism by camp dwellers in St. Pierre’s Plaza.
“If it’s money that was given to his organization that he gave out, then it’s too little,” said Acceme Guerrier, 39, a camp dweller.
Jean, who has defended allegations against his grass-roots nongovernmental organization, said the money handed out to quake victims was a symbolic gesture to kick off his Yele Corps rubble removal project that will begin employing 1,000 people at the end of this month.
“You are not going to have everyone happy with everything you do,” he said. “How much are the other NGOs paying per day? $6.”
In Haiti, the big question is who Preval will bless to lead his INITE (Unity) platform in the presidential balloting.
“Even if he’s very unpopular, he’s kept control of what remains of the state and the Provisional Electoral Council, and those things are key,” in being able to name a successor and win the election, Fatton said. “He’s mastered the art of controlling the political system.”
Still, Preval’s choice is among Haiti’s best-kept secrets. Sources close to him say he may not have even made up his mind yet. And his final choice may end up being none of the names that have been bandied about.
“He doesn’t name names,” said a frequent attendee at daily, hours-long discussions about the upcoming presidential and legislative elections between Preval and members of INITE.
Under Haiti’s constitution, Preval, who is in his second term as president, is barred from seeking re-election.
As a result, observers say who he anoints as his successor will in large part be based on his desires once he leaves office. Does he want to remain an influential behind-the-scenes power or does he want to retire from politics as he did following his first presidential term in 1996-2001?
“All the choices he’s going to make involve a risk. The question is what is the least risky,” Fatton said.
One of the biggest dangers is the possible collapse of the very coalition that Preval launched right before the earthquake, bringing both political foes and supporters under one banner – INITE. The political coup positioned him as a kingmaker destined to push through constitutional and economic reforms – until the quake forced the postponement of the Feb. 28 legislative elections.
But now with his former prime minister, Jacques-Edouard Alexis, and both the current and former presidents of the Haitian Senate, Kely Bastien and Joseph Lambert, interested in running for president – whether they receive the INITE nomination or not – Preval finds himself walking a delicate balance of managing egos and political ambitions.
Privately the two lawmakers have expressed interest as have at least four government ministers, sources say.
Meanwhile, Alexis was in South Florida this week stumping for support, and has been working on his political campaign since he was fired by Haiti’s Senate in April 2008 in the aftermath of food riots.
Another possible candidate is current Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, whose candidacy is being pushed in some quarters. In a visit with The Miami Herald last month, Bellerive said he did not know if he would be among the candidates because “it is not a personal decision. I am on a team.”
Meanwhile, political observers say whoever Preval chooses must be seen as independent, otherwise the candidate would risk igniting an opposition that has attempted to force Preval’s resignation and change the nine-member electoral council.
These attempts have raised concerns among some in the international community, who worry about a possible boycott of the elections and low turnout as Haitian officials try to register voters and replace identity cards in a country where 1.5 million people are displaced.
“Preval could pick anyone and if there is a low turnout, they will win,” Fatton said.
Ultimately, the determination over who is qualified – or not – to run for president of Haiti will be up to the nine-member CEP. It is the final authority that will decide, for example, if Alexis has the proper documentation to run and whether a superstar like Jean meets the five years residency and non-dual citizenship requirements to run.
(Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.)