Election officials were flying street banners and sending text messages to encourage a big turnout for yesterday’s hotly anticipated Senate run-offs, but many are uncertain if they will vote in an atmosphere of increasing violence and political tension.
Eleven vacant seats in the 30-member Senate are on the line, and with them, Haitian President Rene Preval’s hopes of overpowering uncooperative legislators and pushing through internationally backed economic reforms and constitutional amendments that would give his successors more power.
But many Haitians are wary of voting following weeks of clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces, as well as fights between political parties that have left at least two people dead in provincial areas.
“If I wake up and I see that the state isn’t providing security at 100 percent, I might not go and vote,” said Marcel James, 33, a security guard at a Port-au-Prince bank.
The unrest is fueled by political tension, including some early jockeying for next year’s planned presidential elections, as well as wrangling between the president and parliament over a proposal to increase the minimum wage. Tensions also surround the presence of 9,000 UN peacekeepers, who have been in Haiti since the 2004 rebellion that overthrew former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Despite the current situation, election officials are trying to improve on the paltry 11 percent turnout in the first round of voting on April 19.
That round was noted for its empty ballot boxes and sleeping poll workers. Isolated intimidation and violence also forced the cancellation of voting in one of 10 administrative regions.
Public transportation, suspended in the first round, was due to run yesterday. Alcohol sales have been banned. And UN peacekeepers have fanned out across mountains and crumbling highways to help Haitian police guard schools and other polling centers.
“We will break up any protest that comes, because no protests have been allowed,” said Frantz Lerebours, Haitian national police spokesman.
On Wednesday, student protesters burned a UN vehicle. On Thursday, a young man was killed as mourners and UN peacekeepers confronted each other during a funeral procession for a popular priest closely linked with Aristide. The death is under investigation.
The first round of voting heavily favored Preval’s Lespwa movement. Those results were heavily criticized by influential opposition lawmakers who allege fraud and have threatened to disregard winning candidates.
Pressure also comes from Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party, which Haiti’s provisional electoral council barred from elections on a technicality.
The council demanded documents signed by Aristide, who has been living in South African exile for five years.
In turn, Lavalas called for a boycott of the polls, which it partially credited for the first round’s poor turnout.
The US and Canadian embassies, along with the UN and Organization of American States, initially balked at the council’s decision to block Lavalas, but kept quiet after the Preval-appointed council left the party’s candidates off the ballots following a brief reconsideration.
“Lavalas never delivered on this one. Our point was simple: Give them one more chance,” Canadian Ambassador Gilles Rivard said last week. “I sincerely hope that for the next round of elections, [Lavalas] will be represented.”