Haiti’s vote for president: It’s a civic duty no matter the candidates

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — When Haitians return to the polls for the final runoff for president Sunday, they will be choosing between two candidates they say don’t excite them very much.

A woman walks past a poster reminding people to vote. (CNS/Bob Roller)

It is the first election since the January 2010 earthquake devastated about 20 percent of the country, causing more than 300,000 deaths and another 300,000 injuries while leaving 1.5 million people homeless and catastrophic destruction that has barely begun to be cleared.

The candidates include former first lady Mirlande Manigat and festival singer Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly. They were deemed the top two finishers in the first round of voting Nov. 28 that was followed by a controversial period over who would be in the runoff. The issue led to riots and a two-month delay in the runoff.

Still, almost to a person, Haitians told Catholic News Service they will vote no matter whose names are on the ballot.

“Even when you’re skeptical you need to do your civic duty,” Carrefour businessman Laguerre Fitzgerald, 42, said before allowing himself the opportunity to criticize outgoing President Rene Preval for his lack of concrete action during his five-year term.

“I am Haitian, I will be voting,” said Lerisse Rezami, 59, as he prepared to sift crushed rubble from the quake for use in cement in Carrefour. “I am looking forward to a better future for this country. That’s why I’m voting.”

In Terrain Toto, 12 miles east of the congested capital, Auguste Marie-Sonie, 26, laughed when asked about the election, then became serious.

“The problem is most candidates, you pick them and once they get into power they forget their pledges,” she said. “I have some hope that whoever is elected will do something for the country.”

With his shaved head, Martelly calls himself “Tet Kale” (“The Bald”) on thousands of pink fliers posted everywhere in the country. He has consistently led in polls and is regarded as the favorite among working class and unemployed Haitians largely because he uses populist language to which they can relate. Critics say he has offered few specifics, however.

On the other hand, Manigat’s connections to Haiti’s business and professional communities and her role as first lady seem to place her in a position to move quickly to implement government reforms and to jump-start the reconstruction effort, supporters say. Her critics contend she is part of Haiti’s autocratic past and a part of the political system that has produced little for anyone but those at the top.

Complicating the picture is former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was whisked from office in a 2004 coup. Some believe the former populist leader, who left the Catholic priesthood to pursue political office, was forced out by Western governments who wanted someone more to their liking. He was succeeded by Preval.

Aristide may return from exile in South Africa to vote in Sunday’s election, said one source who claimed a close friendship with him.

There’s no word from the Aristide camp about his intentions other than that he wants to return to his homeland.

Despite what the candidates say, most Haitians wonder how much either candidate can do when faced with the enormous task of rebuilding what was lost in the earthquake, let alone move the country forward.

Matthew Accene, another earthquake victim from Port-au-Prince who recently was relocated to a transitional shelter in Terrain Toto, summed up the choice this way: “It’s like seeing two oranges in the market and both of them are rotten. You buy them anyway and hope one of them will be good.”

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