Fears of violence in Haiti as elections begin

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — When her husband ran for president in 1987, Mirlande Manigat saw Haiti implode in violence: Troops massacred voters on election day.

He later won the election, in which just 4 percent of voters turned out, but served only months before being deposed in a military coup in 1988. Two decades later, Manigat herself is running for president in Sunday’s election.

The stakes have changed — back then was the first election after three decades of Duvalier dictatorship; Sunday’s will be the first since the Caribbean country’s worst natural disaster. But the threat of violence persists.

Despite the presence of more than 12,000 United Nations peacekeeping forces, Haitians fear that one of the most important elections in the country’s history will be marred by violence. It’s another worry for Haitians already dealing with a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,400 people and still digging out from January’s earthquake.

‘They have a lot of troops here now. They have a lot of guns and their vehicles. But this is Haiti,” said John Joseph, 34, sitting shirtless and barefoot in front of a tent where he’s been living since the earthquake destroyed his home. “Elections are violent.”

Campaign teams have been attacked, journalists covering events have been ambushed and murders have spiked in recent months, according to statistics from the United Nations police force. From August through October, murders increased 23 percent over the previous year to 182 killings, although a U.N. spokesman said it was impossible to know how much of the increase was related to the elections.

On Nov. 22, supporters of two leading presidential candidates clashed in a small town in the southwest. Shots were fired, and rocks and bottles were thrown and two people were killed, authorities said. The motorcade of one candidate, Jude Celestin, who has the support of current President Rene Preval, was attacked and a supporter was shot in the head.

It was one of several incidents in recent weeks that have Haitian political observers questioning the fairness of Sunday’s vote.

“I’m not very optimistic about this being a fair election,” said Chavannes Jean Baptiste, a longtime political organizer for the National Peasant Movement. Baptiste supports Jean-Henry Ceant, a 54-year-old lawyer, but is more concerned that elections are free. “This is an extremely important election for us. There have been attacks throughout the country. It’s a very serious situation.”

Campaigns have accused each other of causing the violence, with many pointing a finger at Celestin’s INITE party.

“They’ll do anything necessary to win,” Baptiste said.

INITE organizers have denied the accusations. And U.N. officials said they have investigated but found no evidence.

Securing the election is crucial, analysts say. Billions of dollars have been pledged to help the country rebuild from a disaster that killed at least 230,000 and left more than 1 million homeless. When the new government is seated early next year, it will be expected to help guide the reconstruction process.

“There is absolutely a link between the reconstruction and this election,” said the United Nations’ chief electoral officer in Haiti, Mathieu Bouah Bile. “That’s why this election is so crucial.”

Bile said the U.N.’s role in providing security has been made more difficult in recent weeks by violent demonstrations against soldiers.

“You have some elements during the campaign that are trying to take advantage of the situation in Haiti to try to disrupt the electoral process and preserve the status quo,” he said.

The U.N. mission in Haiti — which has 9,000 soldiers and more than 3,000 police officers on the ground — is confident the election can be carried out fairly, Bile said.

With the assistance of the United Nations, the Haitian electoral commission established more than 11,000 polling stations in 1,500 districts. Some of those stations are so remote that the ballots will be transported back toward Port-au-Prince “by donkey,” said Andre Leclerc, spokesman for the U.N. police.

The results are not likely to be finalized until Dec. 7. A run-off presidential vote will be held on Jan. 16 unless one candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, an unlikely prospect considering that 19 candidates are running.

Manigat, Celestin, Baker, Ceant and a few others lead the field, according to recent polls. A winner might not be declared until as late as Feb. 5, just two days before the inauguration.

More than 4.5 million Haitians are registered to vote Sunday, but the threat of violence is a potential deterrent.

“We have always seen violence around the elections,” Baptiste said. “People are traumatized.”

The November 1987 vote was one the most violent, he said. At least 34 people were shot dead by troops. Fresh off the rule of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier — a dictator who took over the country from his father and ruled until 1986 — military leaders were trying to regain control.

Politics and elections have since been marked by military coups and violence.

“The populace associates the elections with violence. It’s a natural thing to do considering our history,” said Francois Pierre-Louis, a Haitian-American and professor at CUNY who is advising presidential candidate Jacques-Edouard Alexis in the election.

Earlier this month, a van carrying Haitian journalists en route to cover a campaign stop by Alexis was attacked. “They shot the driver and then they chased the journalists into the woods,” he said.

Pierre-Louis said he received a call from one of the reporters that night. He then advised the local U.N. office. By night’s end, two armed men were arrested for the attack. A third was shot dead by Haitian police.

Leclerc confirmed the attack took place but said it was random and not tied to the election. Pierre-Louis thinks it was a hit designed to intimidate journalists.

"Will we see more violence on election day this year? I hope not, but I don’t have many reasons to be hopeful," he said.