Haiti's Presidential Election Seized By Controversy

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Haitians went to the polls Sunday to vote in presidential elections. The vote has been shrouded in controversy, with some 12 of the 18 presidential candidates banding together to call it a fraud. Host Michel Martin gets the latest from Associated Press reporter Jonathan Katz, who has been covering the election from the capital, Port-au-Prince.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we'll tell you about a Pentagon study and the potential effects of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That study is due for release tomorrow. Don't Ask, Don't Tell, of course, bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. We'll talk to two former Marines about their take on the study.

But first, to Haiti, where voters yesterday went to the polls to choose their next president and perhaps the most important election in decades. That president will have to face a cholera epidemic, housing where there are a million Haitians living under tents since the January earthquake. And, of course, managing the ongoing reconstruction process.

But even before election day ended on Sunday, 12 of the 18 presidential candidates banded together to call the vote a fraud. The day ended with thousands of Haitians taking to the streets. We've invited Associated Press correspondent Jonathan Katz back to the program to tell us more about how all this is going from Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. Jonathan, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. JONATHAN KATZ (Correspondent, Associated Press): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Jonathan, you know, the first thought that occurs to me is that 18 people wanted that job to begin with is interesting given the challenges that this new person would face. But the fact that a dozen candidates agreed on anything is also interesting. Tell us a little bit, if you would, about what you saw on election day and why it is that so many candidates are so convinced that there was fraud.

Mr. KATZ: Well, it was undeniable that there were a lot of problems on election day. The clearest thing was that many people who wanted to vote were not able to vote because they couldn't find their names on the list, so they didn't know where the polling place was. There was just general disorganize which ended up disenfranchising quite a lot of people.

There were some candidates who were actually calling for the election to be suspended before it even took place. Others said that they were waiting for proof that there would be fraud before they banded together in this call. But what really caught a lot of off guard yesterday, it was about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and all of a sudden, basically, the entire ballot, including all the major candidates except for the one backed by President Rene Preval. We're standing together, holding each other's hands, raising their arms in triumph and calling for the election to be canceled.

MARTIN: Why do they think, if you don't mind my asking, it's sort of going a little bit backwards, given the amount of damage to the infrastructure, what convinced the government that they could go forward with the election?

Mr. KATZ: There was a lot of interest from the international community in making sure that this election went forward on time. The Haitian Constitution calls election for president every five years. It's on the last Sunday in November, so this is written in the document. And in the interest of political stability and continuity and making sure that things go on time, and as the constitution spells out, by the letter of the law, the election needed to be held on Sunday. But at the same time it was very clear for months coming into this that there were going to be a lot of issues about holding the election on time. And it's not surprising that there were a lot of problems.

MARTIN: And tell me about - what is the government of Rene Preval saying about how the elections were conducted? Have they made any official response to this point?

Mr. KATZ: The presidential administration hasn't said anything. Rene Preval hasn't said anything. The electoral council, which has to be approved by the president, the provisional council of the constitution calls for a permanent one to be created, it never has. They held a press conference yesterday in which they said that election day was a day of success. And that while they allow that there had been problems, they limited that comment to 56 voting places.

They said that the election went well and the counting was going to go forward. And moreover, the protest of these 12 candidates was not done formally and not done legally, and so that they weren't going to pay attention to it whatsoever.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking to Associated Press correspondent Jonathan Katz about yesterday's election in Haiti and its aftermath. A dozen of the 18 candidates are claiming that the election was -should be invalidated because the extent of fraud was so palpable. Is fraud really the right word, Jonathan? Or is it more, I mean, or is it more chaos, as opposed to fraud?

Fraud to me implies kind of intentional, an effort to manipulate the vote. Is that what people are saying happened or is it something else?

Mr. KATZ: That's a really good point. The word in Creole that was basically bandied about the most yesterday is (Creole spoken). It's disorder. It was just that things were disorganized. They were not done well and that through that kind of chaos, people were being disenfranchised and felt that it was very unfair. It is extremely hard for us to say, based on the things we saw, if all of this was meant to benefit one particular candidate.

But that is specifically the allegation that these other candidates are making that it was done specifically to benefit the government party, the Unity Party, which was newly created as the first election that it stood in. And Jude Celestin, who is the head of the state-run construction company, has the backing of the president and they are saying that all of this disorder was meant specifically to benefit him and ensure that he would be president.

From what we've seen on the ground, like you said, really hard to say if that's the case or not. But that is the perception of the opposition candidates and that is filtered through the population and it's the perception of a lot of people here.

MARTIN: Well, now that you've told us about Jude Celestin, tell us about a couple of the other candidates who seem to be contenders, if you would. We obviously don't have time to talk about all 18. So give me two or three of the other people who you think are the stronger contenders.

Mr. KATZ: I would say the three strongest bids right now, and of course anything could happen and maybe somebody will come out of the woodwork. But the three strongest candidates right now, aside from Celestin, are Michel Martelly, who is a popular musician here, known as Sweet Micky. He is a carnival musician and he's famous for sarcastic lyrics and onstage antics. But he has become a very serious political entity here.

And Madame Manigat is a former first lady. She has a lot of support as well. She's 70 years old and has sort of a very calm air about her. And Jean Henry Ceant is considered by a lot of people to be the candidate who would be supported by supporters of exiled former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, although Aristide himself hasn't come out in support of him.

Those seem to be the strongest candidates. And, in fact, if you go around the streets, they have much stronger support, much more vocal support, much more passionate support than Jude Celestin.

MARTIN: We only have about 40 seconds left. So, what's next, Jonathan? What's the next thing we should be looking for to try to figure out what's going to happen next?

Mr. KATZ: Anybody who tells you that they can predict what's going to happen next should probably put money on it because they would make quite a lot. The odds are long of any particular possibility happening. Basically, we need to wait and see what's going to happen. This vote count is going to continue and the candidates are going to continue calling for the cancellation and there are a lot of people on the street.

I just came from a press conference with Wyclef Jean who is essentially saying that if there isn't a resolution to this, to the satisfaction of the people in 24 hours, then there's going to be a huge (unintelligible) of violence.

MARTIN: Oh dear.

Mr. KATZ: So, anything from violence to sort of muddling through this election I think is possible. But it really pays to pay very close attention to what's going on here because this is going to decide what's going to happen in Haiti for a long time to come.

MARTIN: All right, well, you will keep us posted. We appreciate it. Jonathan Katz is Haiti correspondent for the Associated Press. He's with us from Port-au-Prince. Jonathan, thank you.

Mr. KATZ: Thank you.

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