May 23, 2013
Haiti sets up run-off in dispute-plagued elections
Haiti announced that former first lady Mirlande Manigat and musician Michel Martelly would contest a presidential run-off next month as the country moved ahead with its dispute-plagued elections process.
The definitive first round results from a chaotic November vote, which saw government-backed candidate Jude Celestin eliminated from the run-off, averted a showdown between Haiti's rulers and electoral officials and the Organization of American States and Western donors including the United States.
Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council announced that opposition matriarch Manigat, 70, and singer and entertainer Martelly, 49, finished first and second in the November 28 first round election and would contest a March 20 run-off.
Manigat did not gain enough votes to win outright. No percentages, just the positions, were immediately announced.
But these positions were in line with a revision carried out by OAS experts, who, citing serious irregularities in the first round vote tallies, had recommended Martelly go through to the run-off instead of Celestin, who had originally been placed second behind Manigat in disputed preliminary results.
After Martelly supporters rioted in December against these initial results, the United Nations, United States and other western donor governments had piled pressure on Haiti's leaders and electoral authorities to adopt the OAS recommendation.
There were fears the unrest could escalate and derail the elections, threatening the handover of power by outgoing President Rene Preval and putting at risk billions of dollars of aid pledged to help the poor Caribbean nation recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake.
The results announcement came as a relief to some.
"I'm very happy about this decision. I was very anxious because I didn't know what was going to happen if Martelly did not get into the run-off. Now I can open my business without fear," said Jonel Joseph, 42, who has an auto parts business.
The Western Hemisphere's poorest state, which lost more than 300,000 people in the earthquake, is also grappling with a deadly cholera epidemic hampering reconstruction efforts.
At the electoral council offices in Port-au-Prince guarded by UN and Haitian police, frustration among waiting local and foreign journalists had mounted through the night as the authorities failed to deliver on an original commitment to announce the results on Wednesday.
On the same day, amid fears of possible violence over the awaited election results, many banks, businesses and schools in Port-au-Prince had closed early.
Adding to the already nervous political atmosphere is the possible return of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has asked the government for a diplomatic passport so he can come home from exile in South Africa.
Several hundred pro-Aristide protesters demonstrated on Wednesday outside the Foreign Ministry to demand Aristide be issued a passport.
Washington and other Western donors, which are trying to keep the contentious presidential election on track, are wary that Aristide's return could inflame Haiti's fractious politics.
The firebrand leftist ex-Roman Catholic priest retains a passionate following in Haiti. He became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1990 before being ousted by an armed revolt in 2004.
Outgoing President Preval's mandate formally ends on Monday, but he has parliament approval to stay on if necessary until May 14 so he can hand over to an elected successor.
President Barack Obama's administration had signaled it was wary of the effect that Aristide's return could have.
"We note that what Haiti needs right now is a period of calm, not divisive actions," a US State Department spokesman wrote in an e-mail response to a question about Aristide's possible return.
Haiti's uncertain outlook has been further clouded by the reappearance of ghosts from its turbulent past. Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier came home from exile in January, running into corruption and human rights charges, and Aristide is now preparing his own homecoming.
Despite a visit on Sunday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to emphasize US backing for the OAS results option, the Provisional Electoral Council had kept Haitians and its foreign partners guessing over whether it would follow the OAS recommendation.
Celestin, a protege of outgoing President Rene Preval, had refused to drop out despite pressure from his own INITE party.
Ordinary Haitians were sanguine about whether the first round results could bring stability.
"We take what they give us. Now I hope life can continue and we can live in peace," said Jonaldo St Jules, 20.