Election keeps tumult coming in Haiti

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 19, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - After the earthquake, the hurricane and cholera, now comes the presidential election, which Haitians pray is not another disaster.

In a field crowded with 19 candidates, the front-runners on the Nov. 28 ballot include a charismatic carnival singer who used to perform in drag, a former first lady whose husband was ousted by a military coup and a rich industrialist who boasts of surviving seven assassination attempts.

Politics, Haiti-style, can be chaotic, typically accompanied by violence and fraud. Campaigning consists of televised debates that most Haitians don't watch because they don't have TV sets or electricity and boisterous public rallies that are announced at the last second, for fear that partisans will attack one another.

Haiti could use a good leader now. The new government will work with the Obama administration, international donors and U.N. special envoy Bill Clinton to spend a record-breaking $9 billion pledged to rebuild the shattered state.

"I've not met anybody we can't work with," said U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten, who has sat down with the top contenders.

This election is unusual in that none of the candidates is seen as the U.S. favorite. Nor are the opposition politicians running against the United States, though many grumble about the power and arrogance of the charities and nongovernmental agencies that form a kind of parallel state here.

With a week to go before the vote, in which 10 senators and 99 deputies will also be elected, violence has been mostly limited to attacks on U.N. peacekeepers, who some politicians say brought cholera to Haiti. "By Haiti standards, it has been quite peaceful," Merten said.

Haiti's presidential election revolves around personalities rather than parties or issues, and this year the big choice facing voters is whether to continue the path of President Rene Preval by backing his handpicked successor, Jude Celestin, a 48-year-old engineer who ran the state road-building agency, or to go with one of the other 18 candidates vowing change.

Celestin is a media-shy technocrat - reportedly very hardworking - who according to the Miami Herald has had trouble making mortgage and tax payments, defaulting on his Florida properties. There are also questions about transparency and cronyism.

If Preval has done anything, he has brought Haiti relative stability, but recent polling - as well as word on the street - shows many Haitians are frustrated with his below-the-radar leadership style, especially since the earthquake.

"He has forgotten the people. His plan is to stay in power with the election of Celestin, but I don't think the people will be fooled again," said presidential candidate Jean-Henry Ceant, a notary with ties to exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Ceant spoke with The Washington Post before a rally in the northern town of Gonaives.

If elected, Celestin said, he would welcome Aristide back from exile in South Africa, along with the general who led the 1991 coup against Aristide, Raoul Cedras, now living in exile in Panama, and former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, or "Baby Doc," who has expressed a desire to return from France.

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