Haitians prepare to vote in long-overdue elections

Parliamentary polls being held on Sunday, but many people are more concerned about poverty and high unemployment.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – At the Scoop FM talk-radio station in Port-au-Prince, it’s all politics all the time.

In a country so poor that televisions are a luxury and more than half of adults can’t read or write, radio is the best way for political candidates to reach out to potential voters.

On the day Al Jazeera visited, candidates packed the ramshackle halls and waiting rooms at the station, waiting their turn to go on air and be interviewed.

Among them was a distinguished looking man named Fred Brutus, who is running for president under the banner of the Parti Federaliste Haiti.

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“Radio is the best medium in Haiti,” Brutus declares. “You can use it and have a lot of capability to have success in politics.”

To have success in the crowded, chaotic field of candidates running for office in Sunday’s first round of parliamentary elections, Haitian office seekers also throw boisterous street parties. An Al Jazeera team wandered into a political rally under way in a back street in the Petionville district of Port-au-Prince.

Hundreds of people, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the likeness of a local candidate for the chamber of deputies, danced, sang, and pounded out an infectious beat on an array of drums. Teenage revellers far too young to vote gyrated and blew long blasts on home-made vuvuzelas.

Watching this scene, one might think that Haitians are wildly excited about the upcoming election.

But a young man who gave his name only as Rudy told us most of the people were paid to participate.

“Some of the people here, they already got their money,” Rudy said. “Me and my boys, we are just waiting till after the rally to get paid.”

Away from radio stations and rallies, most Haitians we spoke to couldn’t care less about the elections.

Every morning, Micheline Joseph sets out an assortment of battered aluminium pots and pans beside a busy street. She’s a street food vendor, offering plates of rice topped with greenish sauce for sale to passers-by. The elections are low on her list of priorities.

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“I voted in the last election and all that happened was the price of rice went up, and then beans got more expensive,” she said. “I don’t see how elections change anything.”

Her views are fairly typical of many in this country, where unemployment is at 40 percent, the average income is $840 per year, and most people live in severe poverty.

Down the block from Micheline Joseph, Nicholas Simon sat behind the tiny stall where he scraps out a living carving rubber stamps and fixing broken watchbands.

He says he’s completely fed up, with politics, the economy, and even his country itself.

“Right now, I’m doing everything I can to leave this country. I can’t stand living here,” he told us.

A neatly dressed man, who gave his name as Anthony, stopped and showed us a briefcase full of carefully printed diplomas and letters of recommendation, certifying him as an electrical engineer.

He’s spent the morning looking for work. When asked if there were many jobs for people like him in Haiti, he merely laughed.

One way to get a job is to try to get elected.

There are 40,000 Haitians running for office, including 70 presidential candidates, 1,800 candidates for the 118-seat chamber of deputies, and thousands running for local office in towns and villages.

In Port-au-Prince, the unsmiling faces of candidates stare down from posters plastered on every wall, door, and telephone pole.

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Running for office costs money, and some Haitian candidates say there’s a lot of dirty gourdes (the Haitian currency) floating around.

“A lot of people use bad money, like drug money and things like this,” said Fred Brutus. “We have this problem in Haiti. And money talks, unfortunately.”

Would-be Senator Jean Renel says he wants nothing to do with shady campaign funding.

“I’ve got people calling me every day, offering me money, but I refuse them,” Renel says. “I want to be able to show the public exactly who is financing my campaign.”

In Haiti, politics and violence go hand in hand.

In one of the worst incidents reported so far, a group of supporters of a local candidate gathered on a street corner in the district of Carrefour the night of July 22. A man on a motorcycle roared up, produced a pistol and began firing. He killed three men and wounded several others before escaping on his motorcycle.

When we visited the scene of the killings, a white banner was strung across the street, bearing the names of murdered men.

People in the neighbourhood believe the killings were an attempt to intimidate and create fear, to keep people away from polling places on Sunday.

Political violence has a long history in Haiti, and there were killings in previous election cycles in 2010 and 2011. This time, political analysts say tensions are high.

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“It looks like violence is part of the equation now,” says analyst and blogger Jean-Junior Joseph.

“Currently we have heard a lot of some examples of violence in many places. The more people who are interested, the more violence is an issue, and the more explosive it is.”

Parliamentary elections were supposed to be held four years ago. But President Michel Martelly and his opponents couldn’t agree on the makeup of a provisional electoral council as required by law.

So the vote was repeatedly cancelled and postponed, and the government machinery ground to a halt.

We visited the modest pre-fabricated buildings that now house Haiti’s parliament (the much grander marble Palais Legislatif was destroyed in the devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010).

A guard let us into the completely empty chamber of deputies. Overturned chairs were pushed against the wall, and the red-and-white bunting at the speaker’s platform imparted an effect of sadness.

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Someone appeared to have left an uneaten lunch on one of the deputies’ desks. Since the elections were delayed for so long, all of the deputies’ terms expired, and the chamber hasn’t seen a single session since January.

Since then, President Martelly has ruled by decree, with an unelected group of cabinet ministers running things. Martelly’s opponents accuse him of deliberately stalling the vote.

At the electoral council offices, Executive Director Mosler Georges assured us that this time, the election would go ahead as scheduled.

Georges says everything is prepared for the voting, but results will not be known right away.

“In Haiti there are very remote areas, difficult to access,” he explained. “Getting the ballots from those places will take three or four days. But we should have preliminary results within eight to 10 days after the election.”

A detailed map on the wall of Georges’ office showed hundreds of polling stations. Many of them were marked with bright red ink. “Historically all these places have a high risk of election day violence. That’s why we have marked them in red,” he said.

Serge Therriault, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who commands the international peacekeeping force’s police division, says there will be enough Haitian National Police, backed up by international contingents, to ensure that polling-place disorder doesn’t get out of hand.

Back on the street, Micheline Joseph had attracted a customer at last.

“If the election happens, it happens,” she sighed, spooning a dollop of green sauce over the rice. “If not, it doesn’t concern me very much.”

For many Haitians, a plate of rice means a lot more than a slate of politicians.

Source: Al Jazeera