In Haiti, Preliminary Election Results Spark Protests

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Haiti's long, troubled election inched forward last night when the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) announced the first round of preliminary results. Upon learning that that Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady, and Jude Celestin, the prodigy of unpopular President René Preval, had made the second round, supporters of populist third-place candidate Michel Martelly took to the streets, throwing rocks, burning tires, barricading roads, and shouting out, "Magouye!" (fraud).

The country has been on edge since its election day of November 28, when Haitians saw tensions mounting to near breaking point. Many voting centers didn't open for hours. Some didn't open at all or closed early. And many voters could not find their polling stations. Others found themselves searching for their names on lists that were long on the dead and short on the living.

Also see: How Easy Was It to Commit Voting Fraud in Haiti's Election?
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Voting was further disrupted when 12 of the 18 candidates held a midday news conference, calling for the election to be canceled because of the irregularities. Some opposition candidates maintained their calls for cancellation and held protests throughout the week. This past Monday, Martelly expressed confidence that he would come out ahead. "We know what the results should be," he asserted at a press conference. "It's a matter of whether we win in the first round or go to a second round."

At first, the candidacy of Michel Martelly--aka "Sweet Micky," a Kompa music star known for ludicrous dancing at concerts--was laughable. But he has gained a massive popular following from voters who hope he can bring chanjman--the systemic change that so many Haitians long for. On election day, a spontaneous rally followed him as he left the cancellation press conference. The crowd swelled to tens of thousands of people waving pink posters, drawing on the color of his campaign materials to symbolize a "pink revolution."

Ahead of the results, many warned that the nation would dissolve into chaos if Martelly didn't win. Martelly's supporters insisted that if the vote went to Celestin--who is considered an extension of the widely detested Preval--it would prove that the electoral authorities were corrupt. "If Celestin goes through, the country will turn on its head," said Innocent Jean Reguel, an unemployed tent dweller, anticipating the results. "The population did not vote for Celestin. If they say it's Celestin, there will be massive disorder because the people's voices weren't heard."

Well, massive disorder has taken hold. In the end, just over a million votes were counted from an electorate of 4.7 million. Celestin came out ahead of Martelly by 6,845 votes. The CEP has faced enormous public doubt throughout the political process, and most Haitians assume the Council is being firmly guided by President Preval. "I don't believe in the CEP. They are thieves, and Preval and the CEP are linked," expressed Michine René, a tent-dwelling street vendor.

Aware of the unrest, the Council members did not present the results themselves; instead, they sent CEP spokesperson Richard Dumel Thibault to face the media with a press release and results list. The press conference was barricaded off and guarded by heavily armed riot police who got to use their machine guns, shooting into the air to disperse protesters shortly after the results were announced.

I spoke on the phone last night to Enid Anis, a father who was alone with three children, lying on the floor of his tent in Champs Mars, a politically heated tent community facing the national palace. Anis's words tumbled out over the line: "They are firing shots and throwing rocks. Tires are burning. They are blocking the road. We can't get out because there is so much chaos."

This morning, the chaos has continued. Local radio stations reported protests in the north and burning buildings (both public and private) in the south. The airport is said to be closed, and American Airlines confirmed that all flights have been cancelled both into and out of Haiti.

The response from the international community has shifted over the past week. The day after the vote, the Organization of American States and the CARICOM Electoral Observer Mission said they did not believe the "irregularities, serious as they were, necessarily invalidate the process." But later in the week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the irregularities "now seem more serious than initially thought," seemingly referring to the count rather than the vote itself. Meanwhile, shortly after the results were released last night, the United States Embassy in Port-au-Prince released a statement expressing concern with the CEP's results. "The 2010 elections represent a critical test of whether the Haitian people will determine their destiny through their vote," the statement reads.

Today, Port-au-Prince is burning. There are barricades across the city, extending into the countryside. Thousands crowd the streets yelling, "Rene Preval, f--- your mother!" and "If they don't give us Micky [Martelly], we'll burn the CEP!" Haiti now faces a three-day contestation period before a week of review. The official preliminary results will be released on December 20, and a run-off is tentatively scheduled for January 16. That leaves much time for more chaos, and more danger for Haitians in the line of fire as protesters demand democracy, justice, and transparency.

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Allyn Gaestel is a freelance journalist based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who writes on international politics, social issues, and human rights. She is a former United Nations correspondent and National Press Foundation Fellow.

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