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Haiti presidential election gains in drama

The vote had seemed an obscure piece of theater foisted by the world on a country reeling from a catastrophic earthquake, a near-miss from a hurricane, and an ongoing deadly cholera epidemic. No more.

November 27, 2010|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — In the final hours of a chaotic presidential campaign in a country that needs no more drama this year, candidate Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly sent out a "breaking news" announcement: He had survived an assassination attempt by a member of the nation's leading party.

His campaign called a news conference in the capital Saturday, and Martelly's cousin — the manager of a hotel immortalized by Graham Greene as a place where you expect to be greeted by "a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier" — gave his account of the shooting.

"At a certain point a very large man was coming toward the candidate," said the cousin, Richard Morse. "He had a bizarre look."

Then there was shooting — somewhere. "There was quite a bit of machine-gun fire. There was quite a bit of handgun fire. There was plenty of people running all over the place."

On questioning, details quickly became muddled (as Greene would have predicted). Perhaps Martelly's people had tried to set fire to the car of a member of a rival party and the man's guards had started firing in the air. Police were investigating.

Just a few weeks ago, Sunday's national election seemed like an obscure piece of theater foisted by the international community on a country still reeling from the catastrophic January earthquake, a near-miss from a hurricane, and an ongoing deadly cholera epidemic.

But now the event has turned into the staple drama of recent elections here, with violent skirmishes, allegations of vote fraud, confusion over polling places, last-minute distribution of voting cards and, despite all this, a hold-your-breath-and-jump hope that whole thing might work.

The stakes are as high as ever. Health workers are scrambling to control the cholera epidemic, which has killed at least 1,500 people. The capital is still largely in ruins, and more than 1 million people are living in tent camps. Billions of dollars in aid pledged to the country have yet to arrive, and the government has been unable to make critical planning decisions that would allow reconstruction to begin.

All this while Haiti floats in a political vacuum. The dominant movement of the last 20 years, centered on exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has splintered so thoroughly that no one knows who represents it here.

For the first time since free elections began in 1990, there is no clear populist presidential candidate or front-runner — just 18 personalities with no evident ideological bents.

Perhaps the most prominent is Jude Celestin, President Rene Preval's pick and the beneficiary of his political machine, the Unity party.

His posters and banners are plastered everywhere and his ads dominate radio. But this political inheritance is also his biggest weakness. Preval, who rolled into the National Palace twice based on his perceived allegiance to Aristide, is deeply unpopular now, and few seem ready to trust his anointed successor.

In fact, despite a recent poll showing him in second place, it's hard to find people outside his rallies or campaign offices who say they are going to vote for Celestin, who runs the country's road-building agency.

"We're not going through that same tragedy again," said Jefferard d'Haiti, 31, standing in line Saturday to get his voting card. "These people mistreated us for 10 years."

D'Haiti said he planned to vote for Martelly, a singer known for his humorous antics during Carnival, including occasionally performing in drag or diapers.

"We're choosing someone who has never tasted government before," D'Haiti said.

The person Martelly or Celestin is likely to face in a January runoff is Mirlande Manigat, a grandmotherly, Sorbonne-educated professor who was briefly first lady.

"My greatest compliment is that I inspire serenity," she said at a news conference Friday.

Her husband, Leslie, was briefly president in 1988 and came in second to Preval in 2006. In a hectoring speech after that vote, the runner-up compared Haiti to a dog returning to its vomit.

But Mirlande Manigat has so far presented a far more gracious, less arrogant persona. "The best gift President Manigat did for his wife is never saying a word during the campaign," said Frantz Duval, editor of Le Nouvelliste newspaper.

The most recent poll, conducted Wednesday, had Manigat getting 36% of the vote, Celestin 20% and Martelly 14%.

Given its links to the National Palace, Unity is getting much of the blame for fraud and violence. At Unity headquarters shortly after Manigat's news conference, about two dozen young men were angrily demanding to be paid after they had rallied for Celestin. One man, who didn't give his name, said he was told to "break things" Sunday, and to vote twice.

Like Preval, Celestin is quiet. He rarely does interviews and his representatives declined requests to talk for this story.

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