Haiti Senate elections hurt by apathy, unrest

By Jonathan M. Katz
Associated Press / April 20, 2009
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Armed UN soldiers, observers, and journalists far outnumbered a trickle of voters in Haiti's capital yesterday as long-delayed Senate elections were held under the threat of unrest.

The elections are seen as a key step in Haiti's return to democracy and President Rene Preval's attempts to retool the constitution and fight poverty. The vote, originally slated for late 2007, was canceled after the electoral council was dissolved amid infighting and an alleged assassination attempt on one of its members. Riots then toppled Haiti's government.

But the success of yesterday's election was threatened by voter apathy and opposition from former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party, whose candidates were disqualified by Haiti's provisional electoral council.

The generally calm conditions were briefly interrupted in the slum of Cite Soleil when Preval's supporters clashed with backers of a rival party, accusing that party's representative of bringing money to the polls to buy votes.

Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters raided polling places and dumped ballots in the streets of Mirebalais, effectively halting voting in the central plateau city, according to Radio Metropole. Authorities didn't know who was responsible.

Security forces, including 9,000 UN peacekeepers, had braced for demonstrations by Lavalas. But Lavalas supporters in Port-au-Prince spent the day campaigning to keep people from participating, promising protests only if Preval insists on considering the results legitimate.

"We are proving to the world and to people of Haiti that Lavalas is the main party in Haiti," said party loyalist Harold Gerard, adding that Preval is proceeding with elections at his peril. "If he presses on doing this election, we are going out into the streets, and it's going to be so chaotic that he is going to have to go."

Shortly after returning from the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, Preval dropped his vote into a transparent plastic ballot box at a school in the capital. There were hardly any ballots in the box.

Edward Joseph, an observer with the Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington-based think tank, said voter apathy or fear of election violence could be behind the apparently meager turnout.

"When you see this kind of low turnout, you have to wonder how interested people are in an election," Joseph said.

A total of 79 candidates are vying for 12 Senate seats in an election delayed since late 2007 by political turmoil, hunger riots and storms. No results were expected yesterday as most races had multiple candidates and were expected to end in runoffs.

In Port-au-Prince, police banned vehicles from the streets and shut down public transportation to keep order.

Preval could see his economic projects and constitutional reform emerge as big winners in the elections.

His Lespwa party already holds six of 18 seats in the upper chamber. A Senate majority for the party, which has a candidate running for every seat but one, would help Preval achieve long-sought reform of Haiti's 1987 constitution, increasing executive powers and allowing presidents to seek consecutive five-year terms.

It would also build support for Preval's economic programs, meant to relieve poverty in a nation where 80 percent of people live on less than $2 a day.

Preval, who was prime minister under Aristide, was elected president in 2006 with strong Lavalas backing.

But Aristide's supporters now consider Preval a traitor for failing to return the ousted former president to Haiti.

Lavalas petitioned the electoral council to allow its candidates to run for Senate, but its case was weakened by a split in the party.

Council President Frantz-Gerard Verret said the candidates were disqualified because they failed to produce documents signed by Aristide, the party's leader who was flown to exile in Africa on a US plane during a 2004 rebellion.