Haiti cancels presidential election as violence erupts

by Jacqueline Charles. Originally posted by The Miami Herald

Haiti postpones Sunday's presidential eleAmid escalating violent protests and attacks on electoral offices around the country, Haitian elections officials Friday afternoon abruptly canceled Sunday’s planned presidential and partial legislative runoffs.

“Jan. 24 is no longer opportune for having elections considering the threats against the electoral infrastructure and on the population who would have to go vote,” Pierre-Louis Opont, the president of the country’s beleaguered Provisional Electoral Council said in a five-minute 2 p.m. news conference at the council’s headquarters in Petionville.

Minutes earlier, officials had halted the distribution of ballots and other voting materials and began recovery of those that had already gone in day rapidly spiraling out of control as two more elections council member confirmed their pending resignation, and elections offices around the country came under violent attack.

The “violent acts” and the verbal threats against elections officials, left the council known as the CEP, with no choice, Opont said as he listed more than a dozen infrastructure that had either been set on fire, or where attempts were made. Among them, he said, was the communal electoral bureau in the northern city of Limbe. It was torched Friday morning. So was the private residence of the top elections official in the nearby city of Pignon.

“Masked individuals fired upon the voting center in Savanette this morning,” he said. “In Fond Parisien, there was a group of masked, armed individuals who seized all of the sensitive materials that they had started to deliver for Sunday’s vote.”

The CEP, said Opont, could not guarantee neither the security of poll workers or the country’s 5.8 million registered voters in runoffs for six senators, 27 deputies and a president in the disputed elections.

The announcement took many by surprise. Less than 30 minutes earlier, government-backed candidate Jovenel Moïse was sitting in the restaurant of a nearby hotel giving one of many interviews scheduled for the day, a final move to win over voters following a campaign rally in the city of Ouanaminthe.

Opont’s decision now raises many questions about what is to come, and possibly puts Haiti on the road to a very complicated process on deciding who will take charge of the country after Feb. 7, the constitutionally-mandated date for President Michel Martelly to leave office. Among the questions, when will the runoffs take place and will they take place with the same presidential runoff candidates, Moïse and opposition candidate Jude Celestin?

The target of fraud allegations, the disputed elections have triggered a month long crisis with the top Roman Catholic and business leaders saying the conditions did not exist for a vote. The Senate even passed a resolution asking the CEP to suspend the process.

As Opont announced the cancellations, thousands of protesters made their way in a silent march up from the city of Delmas to the CEP’s headquarters in Petionville.

After word spread, they cheered, and passing motorists honked their horns. Soon pandemonium broke out as police fired tear gas to disperse crowds approaching the CEP’s headquarters. Angry demonstrators threw rocks. Gunshots were fired. Cars were burned.

Denouncing the violence, Célestin, the main opposition candidate in Sunday’s election, called the cancellation “a victory for all of the democratic sector.”

“This isn’t just about me. It’s also about all the people who supported me and who fought for us to arrive here,” he told the Miami Herald.

Célestin had announced that he would not participate in Sunday’s runoff. On Friday, he continued to call for the adoption of the recommendations of a five-member electoral evaluations commission to improve transparency in the runoff. Among other things, the commission had called for changes in the make up of the CEP, which it said lacked credibility to stage the vote, and a deeper verification of the Oct 25 first round presidential balloting before the runoff. Neither had happened.

Instead, the council announced other measures. Recognizing those “concessions,” the U.S. government earlier in the week voiced its support for the runoff. Washington, which had sent two top diplomats to try and secure Célestin’s participation, had been insistent that Sunday’s vote had to happen.

On Friday, the U.S. and others in the international community had softened its position Friday.

Six foreign ambassadors along with the representative of the Organization of American States and the head of the U.N. peacekeeping stabilization mission said that while they still want to see the conclusion of the electoral process, they support efforts “aimed at finding a way forward that ensures the democratic renewal of state institutions.”

They made no mention of either Jan. 24 or Feb. 7, been insistent that Haiti maintain to avoid a transition and possible chaos. Their failure to mention the date illustrated that Martelly’s position had now become shaky and it was increasingly becoming difficult for him to maintain order in a fragile Haiti.

At the beginning of the week, protesters burned tires and cars in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. By Friday morning, reports trickled in that schools doubling as voting bureaus were being burned. A live news interview by the president on Thursday morning didn’t help. He attacked the opposition, accusing them of “a vast plot” to destabilize his government because they could not win elections.

In secret negotiations with the opposition at the time, Martelly’s words seemed to have derailed any hopes of finding a compromise. The stalled negotiations were back on Friday with both the executive and the opposition preparing to present their own proposition for staving off a deeper crisis.

Sources familiar with the talks, say the sticking point remains Feb. 7, and who would govern Haiti afterward. Martelly supporters say he should be allowed to remain in power until a new president is elected. The opposition, including a majority of senators, want him gone.

While Martelly has been insistent on his desire to leave at the end of his presidential term, he has said that he has an obligation to hand power to another elected president. This, however, has been a rare occurrence in Haiti’s turbulent history where former President René Préval became the first president in modern Haitian history to not face prison, death or exile after he transferred power to Martelly in 2011.

“It was a campaign promise. I always said even if I came into power on 14th of May, I would leave on the 7th of February,” he said. “My responsibility it to hand over the power to an elected president.”