"When you get to know Haitians and their culture beyond the chaos and debris, it’s hard for people to leave it behind," said Nathalie Jean-Baptiste, a Sydney-based Haitian academic. "It is a society that submerges you." Most of us will never know this complex society. The chaos and debris are all that we see splashed across headlines and television news.
Haiti was literally torn apart by January’s earthquake. More than 200,000 people were killed and the homes of a further 1.5 million were destroyed. The displaced now live in the scant shelter of tent camps which are overcrowded and ravaged by disease, rape and hunger. Since then, an ongoing cholera epidemic and, more recently, the devastation of Hurricane Tomas have added to the toll.
These disasters are the backdrop to the presidential election, to be held on 28 November. This election is vital to install "a legitimate, accepted government that can manage the huge challenge of reconstruction and recovery over the course of the next decade," explained Mark Schneider, vice president of Washington-based think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) in a telephone interview.
Observers have said this election will give Haitians the opportunity to rid themselves of the government of President René Préval who has been highly criticised for his lack of action post-quake.
Originally scheduled for February, the election was postponed as a result of the earthquake. Now, following the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in the central region which has so far claimed more than 1100 lives, four candidates have called for a further postponement, just days away from the polling date. Extra time could also allow for improvements to the basic election infrastructure. For example, the replacement of identity cards which were destroyed or lost in the mayhem of the earthquake or the rubble of the refugee camps. Individuals who came of age since the last election are also not yet registered to vote.
Not everyone agrees. At an October meeting of the Haiti Group of Friends, a committee of 19 foreign ministers and international organisations, in Washington DC, Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) director Jon Andrus stated that "major events, like elections, can happen without increasing transmission [of cholera]".
The chief of the Joint Election Observation Mission (JEOM), Colin Granderson, clarified the October meeting that "ID cards, the use of indelible ink and other systems have been developed to deal with proper voter identification." But unless the cards arrive in time, a large portion of the 4.7 million registered Haitians will be unable to vote.
JEOM will deploy 150 observers from Organised American States (OAS) and the Caribbean Community Secretariat (CARICOM) to prevent election fraud. UN peacekeeping forces already in place will take care of the logistics and aim to prevent any displays of violence. OAS Assistant Secretary General Albert Ramdin has underlined the mission’s commitment "to ensure that Haitians are able to exercise their right to vote, their right to elect a new President".
But Haiti has a history of low voting turnouts. In the first round of the 2009 elections, just 11 per cent of the registered 4.5 million voters actually placed their vote. Disappointing turnouts at recent political rallies have indicated that this may be the case once again. "If you don’t have food, money, shelter, I mean voting is the least of your concerns," points out Jean-Baptiste, "it’s the sad reality." But the poor quality of life in the squalid IDP camps may yet agitate the people into action.
Hip hop star Wyclef Jean’s political involvement has helped to raise interest in the election both at home and abroad as has the candidacy of local konpa talent Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly. Young Haitians have grown up idolising these stars. In a country where half the population of nine million is under 25, the influence of these entertainers is considerable.
Martelly and Jean are but two of the 19 presidential candidates (and 66 parties) that are taking part in this election, a figure that underlines the fragility of the Haitian political system. "This is one of the key flaws within the Haiti political structure," said ICG’s Schneider. "These parties are not nationally organised, they don’t have a clear platform and they’re basically built around individual candidates."
Wyclef Jean was the instant frontrunner when his candidacy was announced. But, the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) prevented his candidacy due to a constitutional requirement that presidential candidates reside in Haiti for the five years prior to the election. (He has been living in the US.)
He lashed out against this decision in his song "Prison for the CEP" which he posted online. The song underlines concerns about the corruption of the CEP, insinuating that current President Préval’s "Lucifer" is in charge on the island.
Jean is not alone in his concerns. The decision by the CEP to prevent populist leftist party Fanmi Lavalas, led by exiled former president and Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from participating in the parliamentary elections last year created outrage.
But ICG’s Schneider is quick to rationalise that, "they could have presented candidates for the presidential election, they were not blocked from that." According to him, the real issue was internal divisions within the party. But he does acknowledge concerns about the CEP. Although, he says, the majority of political parties have decided to "hold their noses" and are now cooperating with the Council, ‘there is slightly less antagonism now than there was let’s say five or six months ago".
JEOM’s Granderson defended the CEP at October’s Haiti Group of Friends meeting. "The CEP is aware of its negative image, and is taking steps to ensure there is transparency," he said.
Meanwhile, Sweet Micky is still in the running. Some people worry about how much he actually knows about politics, and whether or not he could command the respect of the international community. "If I am elected president, I will perform nude on top of the National Palace," he told Port-au-Prince publication Haiti Libre back in 1995. His support for the 1991 military coup, his playboy past and crude lyrics have all raised eyebrows.
Even though Jean and Martelly are high profile candidates, they aren’t the front runners. According to a recent opinion poll (pdf) published in the Miami Herald, Myrlande Manigat of the RDNP, the wife of former president Leslie Manigat, currently leads. Préval-backed Jude Celestin of INITE is catching up quickly with Martelly running a distant third. Although no longer in the running, it could still fall to Jean to decide the winner as his endorsement will sway the significant youth vote.
The tasks that will fall to the new president and parliament are significant. The clear priority is the resettlement of the internally displaced, moving them from the IDP camps to housing and resolving land disputes. Security, healthcare and education also require immediate attention.
Furthermore, the successful candidate must satisfy the increasingly discouraged international donors that progress is being made. $2 billion worth of projects have already been approved. The new government must move swiftly to ensure that these are implemented as quickly as possible to retain the support of the international community. "We are functioning in two time frames," Leslie Voltaire, Haiti’s envoy to the UN, told The Economist. "You have the internet time of the international community-they click and they want a response — and then you have the slow pace of Haitian time."
International involvement in Haiti will continue for the foreseeable future. "The recovery and recuperation, and in a sense, building for the first time the kind of infrastructure that a country of 10 million needs, that’s not going to take 2 years or 5 years," commented ICG’s Schneider. "It’s going to be a generation’s task."
Back in Sydney, Nathalie Jean-Baptiste is wary. "Haiti has this really strange relationship with the international community," she said. "On the one hand they need it, but on the other hand, Haitians are very, very proud and they want to deal with their issues by themselves."
It is easy to see why. It is easy to forget that this country, now the poorest in the Western hemisphere, was once the jewel in France’s colonial crown. It is also easy to forget that this crumbling nation was the first ever post-colonial, independent black-led republic. A history of French colonialism and enslavement, and US occupation has shown that international intervention is not always benevolent. It is, in fact, largely responsible for the state in which Haiti now finds itself, natural disasters aside. Jean-Baptiste is hopeful that this election will put Haiti on a path such that the world can see beyond the rubble.
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