PORT-AU-PRINCE—The threat of violence in Haiti’s presidential race is growing in the wake of an alleged assassination attempt on a leading candidate and the sudden determination of many Haitians to cast ballots in an election they once dismissed as a meaningless sham.
With 12 hours of voting Sunday, the country is bracing for donnybrooks the following day as rival camps take to the streets, claiming victory in balloting whose preliminary results won’t be announced until Dec. 7.
Huge lineups to get the necessary voter identification cards have already bred frustration, and there are widespread fears of potential fraud at polling stations across the country.
Concern about electoral violence, which has claimed two lives in the past week, prompted the Haitian National Police to suspend gun permits until Wednesday, ban motorcycles from the roads, restrict alcohol sales and order the closing of restaurants.
That came amid an appeal for calm by Gaillot Dorsinvil, president of the electoral commission, who warned against publication of any opinion polls over the weekend.
Only weeks ago, candidate Jude Célestin, president René Préval’s hand-picked successor, looked as if he was going to easily outspend his rivals to the presidency, his billboards and posters wallpapering much of the city.
But that strategy seems to be backfiring, as growing anti-Célestin sentiment has pushed him into second place behind Mirlande Manigat, the 70-year-old former first lady with a Sorbonne education.
If no one wins more than 50 per cent of the vote — as seems a virtual certainty — a runoff between the top candidates is slated for January, almost exactly a year after a devastating earthquake flattened much of the country.
With 1.3 million displaced people still living in fetid tent cities, anti-establishment anger is turning against Célestin and feeding a sudden groundswell of support around Michel Martelly, a.k.a. “Sweet Micky,” one of Haiti’s most beloved and controversial singers.
That campaign tension was heightened after what Martelly’s campaign team is calling an assassination attempt during a rally Friday in Aux Cayes in southwestern Haiti.
Richard Morse, Martelly’s cousin and himself a prominent musician, says he was marching with a crowd of thousands when he saw a man approach Martelly with a menacing look.
Martelly’s security people whisked the man to the side of the road, and then gunfire erupted, scattering the crowd.
But a local senator — and a member of Célestin’s Inite party — offered a different account. He says some Martelly marchers started to attack his car, and the senator’s security detail, armed with machine guns, then fired warning rounds in the air.
Police in Aux Cayes offered a similar account. There were no reports of injury.
On Saturday, however, Martelly’s campaign officials were still calling the incident an assassination attempt.
The truth, however, may be secondary to the impact the incident has had on Haiti’s gossip-happy electorate.
In Haiti, where death threats confer legitimacy, news of the gunfire quickly spread on the streets of Port-au-Prince and Petionville, which only seems to have steeled the resolve of Martelly supporters.
“If there’s gunshots at 6 a.m., we’ll go out at 7,” says Johnson Ornelus, who lives with his wife and 6-month-old son in the tent city occupying Place St. Pierre in Pétionville. “If there’s gunshots at 7, we’ll go out at 8.”
He’s angry with Préval, partly because he hasn’t demonstrated the kind of hands-on compassion Ornelus says was typical of Haiti’s twice-ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, now living in exile in South Africa.
“Even though Aristide was a bad guy, he would have gone camp to camp and talked to us about what’s going on,” says Ornelus. “We’ve never seen Préval.”
Martelly also appears to be attracting formerly reluctant voters, among them 56-year-old Jean-Phillipe Joseph.
Until a couple of weeks ago, neither Joseph nor his friends planned to cast ballots. Now they’re all going to vote for Sweet Micky, almost in a kind of defiance.
“We’re tired,” says Joseph. “We’ll take a chance on the artist. He didn’t work at the government before.”
They laughingly recite Martelly’s latest slogan — Tèt Kale, or the bald one — and talk about the bull (Martelly’s symbol) gobbling up the green leaves (Célestin’s symbol).
But they also fear violence. In the aborted 1987 election, Joseph remembers lining up outside a polling station in Pétionville when gunfire erupted. “Someone tried to machine-gun everyone,” he says.
Such memories linger in Haiti. “Everybody’s scared about that,” says Joseph. “There are still a lot of bad people.”
But he claims to be unfazed. “We’re going to win, anyway.”
The irony is that many people who say they’ll vote for Martelly also claim that, in a common practice here, they received money from the Célestin camp in exchange for their votes.
Carlos Jean Fantin, who hawks paintings outside the collapsed Palais Nationale in downtown Port-au-Prince, says he’s received roughly $150 (U.S.) from the Célestin camp in the past few months. He even pulls out his Inite membership card.
“I work with the Célestin group, but I’m not going to vote for him,” he says.
Fantin fled his home in the slums of Cité Soleil to live in a tent city near the palace — not because his home was destroyed, but because he saw an opportunity. He thinks he might get a new home out of the bargain.
But he’s also angry at the prospect of a Célestin administration, likening it to just a continuation of the outgoing regime.
“Do you think we can go through another five years of Préval? Préval is the devil.”
Fantin echoes a common allegation, one that speaks to dark suspicions as if they were automatically the truth.
“He took lots of money from the United States, Canada and France and gave it to Célestin for the campaign.
“A lot of people carry guns. If Célestin makes a fake move, this country will explode. People are going to die.”
Inside the same camp, 38-year-old Betty Jume is talking about how she used to be a street vendor, selling fruit. Since the earthquake, she’s been selling something else, as a prostitute.
On Sunday, she’s determined to walk the necessary two hours to get to the polls in her pre-quake neighbourhood. She plans to cast her presidential vote for Jean-Henry Céant — a well-known notary who boasts of his loyalty to Aristide.
“If Aristide was here,” says Jume, “we wouldn’t have to f— for money.”
Is she scared of violence amid the voting? “God will protect us.”
For some, however, the barriers to voting remain too high.
Of 20 people informally surveyed in Tabarre, a displacement camp built on the flats north of Port-au-Prince, only one expects to vote. They all originally came from the Pétionville — three rides away in tap-taps, as Haiti’s makeshift private buses are called.
“We’ve been asking for a polling station (here) but it never happened,” says Jasmin Boyer, a young father of two.
“We can’t walk all the way to Pétionville,” agrees Closenne Pierre, 45, selling charcoal out of her tent next door.
And there are other logistical hurdles. With so many living in tent cities, there are a lot of missing identification cards — cards needed to vote.
And even those who applied for ID cards before a Sept. 28 deadline have no guarantee they’ll get them in time for this election.
In Petionville, hundreds of people were still lining up Saturday at the local police station to get their cards. Near the front, an election official was using a loudspeaker to call out the names of people to come forward for their cards. But his still-weak voice only added to the confusion.
At the back, pinched tightly between two other men, Cenold Fleure-Jean is holding a police document detailing how his card was lost.
This is the fourth time he’s come this week to try collecting a new ID card, such is his determination to vote.
“The way the country is,” he says, “we need a change.”