Haitian Election Brings A Loaded Ballot In Contentious Times
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Fifty-four names fill the ballot in Haiti's presidential elections tomorrow, a dizzying number of candidates all vying to lead the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As NPR's Carrie Khan reports, the contest takes place amid tough economic times with high voter apathy and fear of electoral violence.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Political campaigning in Haiti can be intense and spontaneous. Boisterous rallies for candidates can pop up in an instant with large groups of chanting supporters charging down main thoroughfares at full speed. And always there's music, that feel-it-in-your-chest bass thumping loud music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KAHN: At this rally, hundreds gather at a grass-covered traffic circle in Port-au-Prince. Nearly everyone sports a free bright yellow and lime green T-shirt, the colors of candidate Jude Celestin. Edged out in the last presidential election five years ago, Celestin, a mechanical engineer educated in Switzerland, says he has the most experience to help Haiti. He headed a governmental construction agency. Twenty-one-year-old student Francois Moufis says Celestin gets his vote.
FRANCOIS MOUFIS: (Speaking Creole).
KAHN: But, he says, he certainly hopes Celestin will keep all his promises if he wins. Voter apathy is running high. During last August's chaotic legislative election, the contest was marred by poor planning, voter intimidation and violence. Less than a fifth of voters cast ballots. Election officials have vowed to do better this round, but many voters are skeptical. Clare Deshal says she's worried, but she wants the vote. She balances a dozen rainbow-colored umbrellas for sale atop her head. She won't say who she supports, but says whoever wins has to fix the economy.
CLARE DESHAL: (Speaking Creole).
KAHN: The single mother says "I lost my job a month ago and now have to sell on the streets. I'm both mother and father to my two kids and am struggling to survive." It's been five years since a devastating earthquake flattened most of the capital and killed more than 200,000 people. Current President Michel Martelly is credited with accelerating reconstruction, but heavily criticized for failing to stop widespread corruption. Supported by Martelly's party, candidate Jovenel Moise says he'll be different.
JOVENEL MOISE: It's time to change the country from the blah, blah, blah to action.
KAHN: Moise, who made his riches in the export fruit business, is affectionately called the banana man. He says everyone talks blah, blah, blah but does nothing. He promises to boost agricultural exports by 70 percent and put that money towards free education. There are few other candidates who could garner a top spot in a runoff. But with such a crowded field and with the unreliability of polling in Haiti, no one is making any predictions. Perhaps the biggest wildcard is the role of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who went into exile after a violent rebellion ousted him from power. He returned to the island in 2011, pledging to stay out of politics.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: But in a recent rare appearance, he emerged from his compound in the capital to endorse his party's candidate, Maryse Narcisse, a doctor and human rights advocate and the only woman in the race. Yesterday, thousands came out to see him and Narcisse in the slums of Port-au-Prince, where he still has much support. In addition to a daunting list of candidates, voters may face physical intimidation. Pierre Esperance of the National Human Rights Defense Network says he is very concerned that the police are not capable of keeping the polling places safe.
PIERRE ESPERANCE: (Speaking Creole).
KAHN: "I'm worried about violence, but also I'm concerned about ballot stuffing and fraud. Esperance will have more than 1,800 election observers dispatched around the country. The European Union and the Organization of American States have also sent observers. Carrie Khan, NPR News, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.