Monday, March 28, 2011


The run-off of the Haitian Presidential election was held on Sunday last, March 20th. Whilst the election itself thankfully passed without incident, the events of the weeks leading up to and following the poll, were in perfect tandem with Haiti’s turbulent history.

The first event, on the Friday prior to the ballot, was the long-awaited but poorly timed return of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, after seven years in exile, from South Africa. A White House spokesperson had stated that Barack Obama had phoned South African President Jacob Zuma, to express the concern with regard to allowing Aristide to leave for Haiti. To counter this, there had been a number of open letters published by the Guardian newspaper, London, from a long list of campaigners including actor and black rights activist Danny Glover, and Rev Jesse Jackson, calling on South Africa to assist in Aristide’s return.

There was confusion with regard to the specific date of the former leader’s return. As we reached midweek preceding the election, it seemed that Aristide’s detractors had given up that his return would inevitably happen, but they were fighting still to delay the homecoming. Even after it became clear that Aristide would arrive in Haiti Friday morning, elitist radio stations in the capital, often Aristide’s harshest critics, broadcast that his return would not be until the following Tuesday, seeking to misdirect his supporters in Port-au-Prince.
The number of people reported at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in the capital on Friday morning varied, but all accounts agreed that there was a continuous flow of people in the streets, making their way to the airport; walking, riding in cameyon trucks, and, as one Haitian did, riding down the street on horseback dressed in late 18th century battle attire as worn by Jean Jacques Dessalines, the first leader of Haiti. Crowds chanting ‘Titid, Titid’, a nickname for Aristide, crowded the airport, climbing trees and slipping through fences to catch a glimpse of the former president. Upon landing, Aristide addressed the crowd, speaking in ten languages, including the Zulu and Swahili that he had learned whilst in exile, and thanked those who had supported him during the past seven years. He talked of the current elections, and how the exclusion of his Fanmi Lavalas party, was an exclusion of the majority. Following the speech, he and his wife and two children made their way in a car with tinted windows to their home in the north of the city. Here, many more crowds had gathered, chanting in celebration of the return of a man they observed as Haiti’s hope in this time of turmoil.

The statement by Aristide that he was returning to Haiti to be observed not as a politician, but as an educator, had been questioned, but he held his word, from the time of his arrival to the election at least.

The following day, Saturday, the eve of the election, Presidential candidate Michel Martelly had organised a large rally in front of the national palace of Haiti, the culmination of a series of campaign concerts around Haiti. Haitian musician Wyclef Jean performed at the event, which included lights, fireworks, and had the general atmosphere of a well-funded campaign. The following morning, as the polls opened here in Gros Morne, word trickled out that Jean had been shot shortly after the concert. Jean’s brother told reporters he had been shot, and a spokesperson reiterated later that he had received a bullet would to the hand, but was recovering. The news of the shooting would naturally lead, given Jean’s role as a primary supporter of Martelly, to the assumption that the supporters of Mirlande Manigat, Martelly’s opponent, had taken up arms. There had been word earlier in the week, mostly via radio bouche (literally ‘mouth radio’, analogous to ‘word of mouth’), that if Martelly was not elected, things, to put a point on it, would kick off. His base support of young males would apparently ‘set Haiti alight’, if their preferred candidate was not given the office of president. The reports of Jean’s shooting may, or may not, have cast a shadow of doubt for voters on Manigat’s campaign in the early hours of the polls. If this was true, Manigat’s pitch of a mother nursing her injured child was voided: she was like all those that had come before her, resorting to violence. However, as the events of the alleged shooting were investigated further over the course of the day, it transpired that when quizzed by police, the doctor who had attended to Jean’s wound stated that the small graze on his hand had been caused by a shard of glass, and not a bullet. Jean would over the course of the following week maintain his story that he had heard ‘pops’ like those of a small gun, realised his hand was bleeding, and had quickly driven with his entourage to the nearest hospital. It may have been a coincidence that the events occurred the night before the vote, but this meant the headline of ‘Wyclef Jean Shot’ would reach voters through radio stations and radio bouche as they stood in line waiting to vote, before the details of the story emerged later.

The day of the election finally arrived on Sunday. We had been advised, to my surprise, the day before, that driving was forbidden on the day of the election. Two of the party of eight in our household had been asked to volunteer as independent observers at the two polling stations in Gros Morne. When they returned home on their lunch break I asked if I would be allowed into one of the centres with them upon their return. We agreed that it was worth a try. Although the two had been issued with badges to prove their status as independent observers, as I have alluded previously, being a blan in Haiti is like having ‘CD’ registration plates on a car in Ireland: very few ask questions. As I approached the entrance to the polling centre with my colleague Mitch, my left hand leafed the passport in my pocket, should they ask for identification. In my right hand I held a notebook and pen, half-heartedly suggesting my being here was of a professional nature, though somewhat voided by the Led Zeppelin tshirt, shorts and flip-flops. My precaution was irrelevant, and I nodded with a feigned sense of mutual understanding at both the local police officer and the Argentinean UN soldier standing guard, as I passed through the small gate.

Mitch introduced me to Osam, the coordinator of the independent observers, who was only too happy to proudly show me around the polling centre and explain the system to me. This particular centre, in a school on the main street of Gros Morne, was one of two centres in the town. Each of the two centres consisted of fifteen offices, most of which were housed in a half of a classroom, separated into two using the school-benches. Each office had a list of approximately four hundred members of the electorate, posted outside on A4 paper, who were eligible to vote in that office. The Conseil Electoral Provisoire (CEP) had assigned to each office a president, vice-president and secretary, tasked with the checking of identification cards, distributing ballot papers and inking the right thumbs of voters to show that they had voted. As a concurrent run-off election for the departmental senate seat was being held, there were four political parties with an interest in the ballot. Four representatives, one from each party, were posted in each of the fifteen offices to observe the voting and the count that followed. Osam told me that the turnout had been low, similar to that of the first round of the election in November.

Four o’clock came, and the gates to the centre were firmly shut, nobody being permitted to enter or exit until the count was finished. I walked around the fifteen offices observing the counting process: the secretary of the office removed each ballot paper from the transparent plastic polling box, showed the observers that the back of the paper had been signed by the voter, read aloud the name of the candidate that had been selected, then finally placed the paper in a pile corresponding to that candidate. All the other staff jotted rough counts while this went on, and then when all the ballots had been removed, a recount was carried out. The presidential votes were counted first, and then the senatorial votes.

The count did not take long, another reflection on the turnout. As I waited for the recounts to be completed, I tried to start a conversation with one of the three UN soldiers in the centre. As it transpired, he only spoke Spanish, and upon trying to retrieve some of the language from the depths of my brain, I found it had all been replaced with Kreyol.

When Osam had collected the figures from all fifteen offices, he showed me the final tally. From what I could observe quickly, the average turnout between the offices had been 120 from four hundred people, thiry percent of the electorate. In each of the offices, Manigat had achieved a winning margin of about 2 to 1. Osam explained that the presidential election worked on a popular vote system, so each vote here for either candidate would count for the exact same as a vote for either candidate in any other part of the country, without any type of departmentalisation. He explained further that the count from the other centre in Gros Morne had been very similar, but that the margin of approximately twelve hundred votes for Manigat would compare minutely to the hundreds of thousands of Martelly supporters in the larger towns and cities. We thanked Osam for his patience with us, and left the centre as the other staff filed out.
The relatively small victory for Manigat in Gros Morne will no doubt, as Osam said, pale in comparison to the support gained by Martelly in Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Gonaives, and Cap-Haitien. However, Manigat’s corresponding victory in the first round shows that of the members of the electorate that did come to the polls in Gros Morne, most stuck with their initial preference. As Manigat topped the poll nationwide in the first round, this should not be dismissed.

As the reports came through on Monday that voter turnout had been similar throughout Haiti, speculation began of who would emerge victorious. Martelly’s young supporters had enjoyed a colourful campaign trail, but could they be relied on to have actually gone to the polls? The provisional results of the election will be announced by the CEP on the 31st March, with the final results following on April 16th. While hopefully these announcements and the following transition of power can occur peacefully, it appears that Haitians, in their millions, rather than expressing their views by voting, have done so by not voting. Whether these views are a sign of support for Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas, a sign of apathy throughout the country, or otherwise is open to debate.

Biwo your head in the sand: one of the polling offices, without much of a queue

The count proceeds under observation.

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