United States officials asked former president of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, to delay his return to the country until after the March 20 elections amid fears that his presence will influence voters. President Aristide has been living in exile in South Africa since his removal from office in 2004. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated in comments yesterday that the decision to allow Mr. Aristide to return was up to Haitian authorities but warned that his return before the election could be “destabilizing” and “could only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections.” Mr. Aristide’s lawyer, Ira Kurzban, has echoed the U.S. State Department’s sentiment that the former president’s return be left up to the Haitian authorities while noting that Mr. Aristide wishes to return to Haiti to dedicate himself to education and not to politics.
Speculation of Mr. Aristide’s return to Haiti has increased since the return of another exiled former Haitian leader, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, to Haiti on January 16, 2011, after 25 years of living in exile in France. U.S. authorities have appealed to the South African government to delay Mr. Aristide’s departure from the country. However, South African deputy foreign minister Marius Fransman stated today that it was not “our responsibility to say if Jean-Bertrand Aristide should or should not leave South Africa before the election” while noting that the Haitian government has cleared the way for Aristide’s return by issuing him a passport this past February.
Both presidential candidate’s in this weekend’s run-off, Mirlande Manigat and Michel Martelly, or “Sweet Micky” as he is more popularly known, have no objections to Mr. Aristide’s return. Meanwhile, Mr. Aristide remains a divisive figure in Haitian politics and still retains some support, especially among Haitian living in slums and tent cities where the since the January 2010 earthquake, where people have become frustrated with the slow pace of recovery.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Port-au-Prince yesterday to meet with Haitian politicians regarding the ongoing presidential elections. She met with incumbent president René Préval and the three leading candidates after the November 2010 vote: former first lady Mirlande Manigat, construction executive Jude Célestin and popular musician Michel Martelly.
The preliminary results were originally contested when Martelly—long expected to advance to a second round—lost out to Célestin to advance to the runoff. After much international pressure, the Organization of American States (OAS) conducted an investigation, and issued a report recommending that Martelly be included in the runoff instead of Célestin. Secretary Clinton said yesterday that the Obama administration supports the OAS’ findings. Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council is expected to issue its final ruling on Wednesday.
Although the presidential runoff is scheduled for March 20, with results to be announced on April 16, Préval is constitutionally required to leave office on February 7. However, an emergency bill passed by Haiti’s parliament last year allows Préval to stay in office until May 14. Célestin, a member of Préval’s Inité party and widely viewed as his political protégé, has in recent days rebuffed Préval’s calls to withdraw from the race.
In addition, a Department of State press release noted that Secretary Clinton visited a cholera treatment clinic to monitor ongoing reconstruction efforts after last year’s earthquake.
On Tuesday, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) announced former first lady Mirlande Manigat had won 31.4 percent of the November 28 presidential vote and that construction company chief Jude Célestin had earned 22.5 percent. The two candidates will compete in a runoff election on January 16.
Third-place finisher Michel Martelly, a popular singer who is known locally as “Sweet Micky” and “Bald Head,” did not advance to the runoff, having earned 6,845 votes less than Célestin.
The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince responded to the CEP announcement with a statement of concern. Locally, thousands of Martelly supporters took to the streets in violent protest. They set fire to Célestin’s party headquarters, blocked streets with rubble from the January 12 earthquake, and ignited hundreds of tires. As a result, four deaths have been reported, businesses and schools were closed and the international airport shut down. In an interview with Haitian radio, Martelly urged his supporters to protest nonviolently—arguing that the only way to challenge the results was through the legal process. However, he added that he would not participate in the runoff if Célestin remained a candidate.
CEP’s ruling was questioned by international monitors who did not expect Célestin to advance past the first round of voting due to his relatively unknown status among the electorate. Célestin was widely known as incumbent president René Préval’s handpicked successor, and observers allege fraud and ballot-stuffing on the part of the CEP.
On Saturday, September 18, viewers in Haiti and across the world can tune in to the country’s presidential candidates' debate at 9 a.m. on Radio Kiskeya, Radio Tele Ginen and Signal FM. International media have been invited to cover the event, and several universities, including New York University and University of Miami, will be streaming it live on the internet. To be broadcast from Pétionville, a relatively affluent suburb of Port-au-Prince, the debate will be the first in a series organized by the non-profit organization Haiti Aid Watchdog (HAW) in collaboration with the Interuniversity Institute of Research and Development (INURED). The theme of the series is, Nou pap vote moun men nap vote pwogram ("We are not voting for a person but a program").
The 19 approved presidential candidates have been invited to present their platforms, and Haitian citizens within the country and in the diaspora are encouraged to participate via Skype, video conferencing, email, or SMS text.
HAW monitors the Haitian government and seeks to educate voters and promote fair elections. It has organized the debates to foster dialogue and accountability from candidates on issues such as public services, international assistance, security, re-construction, and judicial reform.
The debate series is welcome news of a measure of transparency and accountability. An August 16 meeting between President René Préval and members of Haiti’s election commission, CEP, led observers to wonder whether the commission four days later rejected certain candidates’ eligibility—including that of hip-hop star Wyclef Jean—on the basis of political considerations instead of constitutional law. An electoral observation mission run jointly by the Organization of American States and Caribbean Community has requested that the CEP disclose its reasons for dismissing candidates. However, most members of the international community—providing the bulk of the election’s $29 billion budget—are hesitant to interfere and slow down the election process.
Haiti's Ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, said today that next week he will formally announce his candidacy for President in the Haitian national elections later this fall. In an interesting twist, some observers are predicting that Mr. Joseph will be running against his nephew, and world-famous performing artist, Wyclef Jean. Mr. Jean—a socially responsible celebrity as discussed with AQ—has been involved extensively in Haiti’s reconstruction and is rumored to be completing the paperwork required to run for public office and has until August 7 to complete the process.
In response to the possibility of Wyclef joining the race, Ambassador Joseph commented: “We are family. And we won’t allow politics to divide… No, I wouldn’t say running against, I would say running parallel.”
"I think he [Joseph] would be a strong contender," "I’m not endorsing him, but I am saying that he does fit the profile of what many expect to see in the next round: someone able to engage the international community." says Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University who has extensive knowledge on Haitian affairs.