Haiti in limbo as election postponed amid unrest
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti was once again plunged into political limbo Friday, January 22 after plans to hold an imminent presidential run-off were abandoned in the face of an opposition boycott and fierce street protests.
As angry crowds flooded into the streets of the capital, the chairman of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), Pierre-Louis Opont, said the planned vote on Sunday, January 24 had been pushed back because of "obvious security concerns."
No new date has been set.
Opont complained that CEP personnel had been attacked and that several polling stations had been burned overnight.
After his announcement, there were scenes of panic outside CEP headquarters as police violently dispersed a crowd. An Agence France-Presse reporter heard gunfire within a hundred yards (meters) of the presidential palace in downtown Port-au-Prince.
At least one protester was shot and wounded and shop windows were smashed in the busy Petionville commercial district near the electoral agency headquarters.
The poorest country in the Americas had been due to go to the polls to elect a successor to President Michel Martelly and seek a way out of a deep crisis that now threatens to leave a political vacuum.
Opposition activists feared the vote would be rigged in favor of Martelly's hand-picked successor, Jovenel Moise, and their champion Jude Celestin is boycotting the poll.
Martelly was initially scheduled to broadcast a national address on the crisis but later canceled it, leaving the government's position on the CEP's decision unclear.
Opont said that, having concluded it was impossible to hold a vote on Sunday, he was waiting for "the response of the executive" before deciding how to proceed.
For his part, Celestin welcomed the postponement as "a victory for democracy, not only for me because I was not the only one opposed to this 'selection'."
Angry crowds had already gathered in Port-au-Prince, burning cars, clashing with police and threatening to disrupt any attempt to allow voting to go ahead.
The decision will be seen as a blow to the ambitions of the United States, Haiti's key foreign partner, which had pushed for voting to go ahead despite the violence.
Martelly, who has accused critics of trying to destabilize Haiti, is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election and has vowed to hand over to a successor on February 7.
In October's first round vote, his hand-picked ally Moise was credited with 32.76% of the vote over opposition flag-bearer Celestin's 25.29%.
But many polling stations remained closed due to unrest or electoral skullduggery and voter turnout was tiny.
Celestin's supporters cried foul, accusing Martelly of mounting an "electoral coup d'état."
The government allowed a hastily assembled independent commission to review the ballots, but the opposition was not been mollified and Celestin refused to campaign.
On Monday, January 18, Tuesday, January 19, and again on Friday, protesters descended onto the streets of Port-au-Prince, a capital still scarred by a 2010 earthquake that left more than 200,000 dead.
They blocked several downtown streets and fought running battles with police.
This week, an umbrella body of poll observers declared they would not take part in an event "that the CEP wants to pass off as an election."
And on Tuesday, observers from the Organization of American States, expressed "concern on the current political impasse ahead of Sunday's second round of elections."
The US State Department had no immediate reaction to news that Sunday's poll had been canceled.
On Thursday, January 21 spokesman Mark Toner had said Washington wanted voting to go ahead.
He also offered US support for "efforts to dialogue among Haitian actors to enhance the credibility and transparency of the electoral process."
But for his part, Martelly did not appear on Thursday to be in the mood for dialogue and negotiation, denouncing instead a "vast plot to try to destabilize us."
He accused the opposition of trying to run out the clock to undermine the legitimacy of the planned handover of power.
"They want to take power their way, because they can't take it through the ballot," he alleged Thursday.
Haiti has seen its share of chaos.
Since 1986, when president-for-life Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier fled a revolt, the Caribbean island nation has struggled repeatedly to hold credible elections.
And to political chaos and gang violence has been added the fury of nature, with first the 2010 earthquake and then a cholera epidemic ravaging the population. – Amelie Baron, AFP/Rappler.com