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Another Presidential Ouster Brews at the Haiti Polls

5 minute read
Tim Padgett with Jessica Desvarieux / Port-au-Prince

Even if the U.S. had a hard time managing events in Egypt last week, at least it got Haiti to do what it wanted.

For weeks, Haitian President René Préval had angrily rejected the Organization of American States’ conclusion that his handpicked candidate, Jude Celestin, had finished third, not second, in the fraud-tainted Nov. 28 presidential election, and that Celestin was therefore ineligible for an upcoming runoff vote. But on Jan. 30, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Port-au-Prince to persuade Préval, reminding him that Haiti risked losing significant U.S. and international aid if it didn’t accept the Organization of American States’ recommendation. Last Thursday, Préval’s feckless election council finally issued first-round results that put Celestin third.

(See the confusion leading up to Haiti’s Nov. 28 presidential election.)

That outcome almost certainly prevented violent protests: supporters of former pop singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, the actual second-place finisher, were poised to hit the streets again, as they’d done in December after preliminary results put Celestin in front of Martelly by a razor-thin margin. More unrest in Haiti would have been the last thing Washington needed to deal with amid the emergency in the Middle East.

The U.S. now has another hard mission ahead in the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean country: helping to ensure that the March 20 runoff election — critical to moving Haiti’s stalled recovery forward — isn’t derailed by the same problems that made a mess of November’s first round. Voter-registry chaos prevented reliable results in that election, despite $14 million in election assistance from the U.S. “Haiti has to get it right this time,” says a U.S. official.

And so do the U.S. and the international community, the official acknowledges, given the widespread impression among Haitians that foreigners are running the electoral show. But that’s largely because the aloof and unpopular Préval isn’t up to running it. Granted, the massive quake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, and killed some 250,000 people devastated both the government and much of its voter-registration records. But even though almost $30 million (including the U.S. funds) was spent preparing the November round, and although Préval assured Haitians that the voter rolls would be in shape, confusion reigned at most polling sites — at least when Haiti’s 4.7 million voters, many of them living in tent cities after the earthquake, couldn’t even figure out which sites to go to. Next month’s vote will require far more, and much better trained, poll monitors, and more active security on the part of U.N. forces, given the troubling instances of ballot theft in November.

(See TIME’s video “Haiti’s Precarious Election: Between Crisis and Optimism.”)

Préval’s five-year term was supposed to end on Monday, Feb. 7. But that was before the electoral crisis forced a delay of the presidential race’s second round, which was originally scheduled for Jan. 16. The Haitian Senate as a result has extended Préval’s term until May 14. Even so, Haitians are so fed up with his disengaged rule that many plan to demonstrate on Monday for his immediate departure so that a provisional government can run things until the next President is sworn in.

That will be either Martelly, 49, or the first-round winner, Mirlande Manigat. The moderate Manigat, 70, a soft-spoken former First Lady and constitutional-law scholar who would be Haiti’s first elected female President, garnered 32% of the Nov. 28 vote, compared with about 22% for Martelly, a more populist political novice known during his rapper days for cursing and dropping his pants onstage. Whoever prevails next month will manage some $10 billion in international reconstruction aid as well as a necessary overhaul of Haiti’s corrupt and dysfunctional public sector.

But there are doubts that either is up to the task, especially after their post–Nov. 28 performances, when both declared the vote invalid — then changed their minds when the results put them in the runoff. “The voice of the people, the voice of God,” Martelly’s Facebook wall shouted last week. “Martelly and Manigat in the second round!”

The next President will also face a new parliament dominated by Préval’s Inite (Unity) Party, which will almost certainly be feeling resentful of Celestin’s ouster from the runoff. Manigat or Martelly will also have to deal with a lingering cholera epidemic that has killed more than 4,000 people since it began last fall — as well as an extra layer of political crisis brought on by exiled former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s stunning return to Haiti last month. A Haitian judge has charged Duvalier with embezzlement for the hundreds of millions of dollars he allegedly stole during his 1971-86 rule. That means his prosecution will be one more costly distraction on Haiti’s long road to recovery.

Another could be the return of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who himself has been in exile in South Africa after an uprising forced him out of power in 2004. Aristide’s presence would most likely be an extra unwelcome disruption, which is why Préval has long refused to issue him a new passport to return home. But shortly after Clinton’s visit last week, Préval suddenly said he would grant Aristide the document — a reversal that more than a few observers saw as a petulant dig at the U.S., which opposes Aristide’s return. But compared with dealing with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak right now, Préval’s gesture is an irritation Washington can take.

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