Haiti hopes against hope:

Politics in a time of cholera, marked by chaos and anger

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Can election heal a nation ravaged by disaster and disease?

It is a broken country: the poorest in the western hemisphere, its people traumatised by the shattering earthquake which destroyed so many lives, and prey to a devastating cholera epidemic and continuing violence.

Tomorrow Haiti will go to the polls to try once more to put itself back together.

But it does so against as daunting a backdrop as any election to be held anywhere in recent times. The journey to the vote in Port-au-Prince, the first since the "day of catastrophe" last January which left more than 230,000 dead and 1.3 million people homeless, has been suffused with accusations and recriminations and a sense of foreboding.

In Champs de Mars, the central plaza which has become a vast tented village of the dispossessed, a Creole slogan painted in blue on the single remaining wall of what was once an office block tells the story. It reads: "The dead shall be heard." But if that phrase carries the strange sense that Haiti's victims remain a reproachful presence in this election, there is also a powerful fear in the capital that their voices will not be heeded, but misunderstood.

With little documentation of those killed and missing, identity cards are said to be changing hands for about $5 so they can be used for fraud. In a contest in which each candidate is spending millions, that is small change.

Public scepticism about the election is palpable. "Of course they will steal votes from those who have gone," said Etienne Gilbert, 46, a casual labourer, as he watched a political rally in the capital. He lost his wife and 15-year-old son when their house disappeared into a gaping hole. "Those who are living are selling their votes, but the votes of the dead are cheaper."

Mr Gilbert shook his head. "We suffer, we continue to suffer," he said. "Human beings should not have to endure such things. No one cares that so many people are gone. I do not know who I will vote for. But if there is no change soon then I shall fight and so will many others."

But any hopes that the election will have a galvanising effect are slim. Nobody expects politics in a time of cholera to provide a clear way forward. The results will be disputed with the possibility of disturbances, and those charged with maintaining security, the UN force, are blamed by the populace for bringing a disease into the country which has killed 1,000 so far. Clashes between rival supporters have led to some deaths and injuries. In the coastal town of Jérémie, a gun attack on a convoy carrying Jude Celestin, the outgoing President René Préval's preferred successor, led to three people being killed. Senator Joseph Lambert, the campaign manager, claimed it was an attempt to assassinate Mr Celestin.

A previous attack in the same area on a meeting of a rival, Charles Henri Baker, had resulted in two deaths and a gathering of his followers in the capital, Port-au-Prince, was broken up by men on motorcycles firing pistols into the air.

There was a grim and surreal undercurrent to the last round of campaigning in the capital. The fear of cholera has meant the candidates do not go in much for handshaking, even though the disease is not actually spread by human contact. They do hold rallies, though. Etienne Gilbert was one of the onlookers at one for Michel Martelly, a former kompa singer also known as "Sweet Mickey", where brightly painted trucks belted out party songs to a Caribbean beat beside piles of rubble that have buried bodies of the earthquake's victims.

Many of those watching from the potholed roads were on crutches – collapsing buildings and emergency surgery under horrendous conditions leaving a generation of amputees to join the 800,000 already disabled before the shattering tremors.

Whatever resentment those looking on feel towards the country's political classes, though, pales in comparison to their anger at the foreign forces that are supposed to be keeping the peace. Nepalese UN troops are blamed for introducing cholera by washing waste into a river, the Artibonite. There have been riots, with two people shot dead when the soldiers fired and many others were injured.

When a helicopter flew low overhead at the rally, Johnny Freleng, a 23-year-old graduate who is, like a vast number of his generation, unemployed, looked at it in anger. "I would have shot at it if I had a gun," he said, standing next to Mr Gilbert. "We are living in shit and the UN does not do anything except give us cholera. Where is the aid America and everyone promised ? But our politicians are no better; they are just a bunch of thieves. This election does not matter."

The aid, billions of dollars of it, and who gets their hands on it is very much a part of the equation. The international community is waiting to see what happens at the election before releasing the vast sums. Mark L Schneider, of International Crisis Group, said: "Whoever wins is going to have an enormous opportunity with significant resources to reconstruct the government and rebuild infrastructure."

The election will also, however, present enormous scope for graft, held Mario Joseph of the civic society pressure group Bureau des Avocats Internationaux. The problem, he said, is an "immoral system which is not functioning and an election process which can be manipulated for fraud. People are disillusioned by what they see."

This disillusionment has led some to take a rose-tinted view of a time which made Haiti notorious, the reigns of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier. The menace of the secret police, the Tonton Macoutes, is a faded memory. "The older people look back on the Duvalier years when things were better," said Gerald Murray, an anthropologist with an interest in the country for more than 30 years. "They didn't like the Tonton Macoutes, but there wasn't the chaos and violence there is now."

That chaos is in some ways emblematised by the number of candidates running for the presidency – 19 hopefuls in all. Yet not even they deny the scale of the problem. "Right now we are lost as a people," said Michel Martelly. "We have lost our dignity, our pride. The members of the establishment in Haiti are corrupt; they have destroyed this country. You watch, I will win the vote but lose because of the fraud – that is the way they will do it."

Mr Martelly, 49, is a more exuberant figure than most politicians: his act involved him appearing on stage in drag and dropping his trousers in the finale. He is the second musician to stand after the US-based Wyclef Jean campaigned for a while before being banned by the Electoral Council. The hip-hop artist's slogan was "Jen kore jen" – "Youth helping youth". Now Mr Martelly wants to help himself to some of these disaffected votes.

"I want the young people to organise against the élite," he said. "We must make sure that they are the ones who get to benefit from a future Haiti, not the élite."

Charles Henri Baker, an industrialist and another of the candidates, took a different view. "Yes, I am part of the élite," he said. "But I am also someone who creates jobs and this is what this country needs. We have to be a modern country, and if enough wealth is created it will be shared."

Haitians seemingly accept that there will be widespread malpractice. The head of the electoral registry, Philippe Augustin, said in a matter-of-fact fashion "I think there will be fraud everywhere. The result will get hijacked."

Almost every candidate has been accused of offering money for votes and Mr Henri Baker is no exception. He could bank on backing in Pétionville, the home of the affluent, but it is more surprising to see people wearing T-shirts with his name at Cité Soleil, a ghetto of desperate poverty.

Mr Henri Baker is accused of paying neighbourhood toughs to pressurise people to promote his cause. But the candidate himself says the calumny comes from the team of Jude Celestine, the President's favourite. "They are trying all kind of tactics – telling fabrications, intimidation," he said.

The reputation of President Préval, who cannot run for a third term under the constitution, plummeted after what was seen as his inaction following the earthquake. But he is effectively in control of the Election Council which debarred Wyclef Jean for not being a Haitian resident for the last five years, and also rejected members of the Lavalas Party of the ousted ruler Jean-Bertrand Aristide for the ostensible reason that he had not personally filed the election paper. The former president happens to be in exile in South Africa without a passport.

Mirlande Manigat, another candidate again, is a 70-year-old Sorbonne-trained academic. The wife of the former president Leslie Manigat, she is doing well at the polls. At her last public speech before the vote, she maintained she is staying above it all, talking instead about the need for solidarity among the people and for a cleaner, more conscientious leadership.

Listening in the crowd, Alan Suarez, a 68-year-old retired engineer, smiled sceptically. "I will vote for her because she is old like me, but really no one standing fills me with confidence," he said. "The thing now is to get the election over without too much trouble."

The Four Front-Runners

Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly

The kompa jazz singer hopes to pick up the youth vote gathered by US-based hip-hop star Wycliffe Jean, who was disqualified from running because he has not been a resident of Haiti for the last five years.

Mr Martelly says he is leading a "peasants' revolt" against the moneyed elite of Haiti, but his cross-dressing stage act, in which he dropped his trousers in the finale, has led to disapproval from some of the older people among the electorate.

Jude Celestin

The successor picked by outgoing President Rene Preval who cannot run for a third term under the constitution.

Mr Celestin was a little-known technocrat before being picked and is perceived by critics to be a puppet of Mr Preval. His campaign theme of "continuity" does not appear to fit the mood in the country but millions of dollars has been spent on his campaign and he has a powerful party machine behind him.

In the last stage of the campaign he has been projecting himself as "the quiet man".

Mirlande Manigat

The septuagenarian Sorbonne-educated academic, and wife of a former president overthrown in a military coup more than two decades ago, presents herself as a calming older influence in a volatile political scene.

"Mom", as she is known to her followers, has run an unexpectedly successful campaign and is in the lead in several opinion polls but a relative lack of vote-buying capability may count against her chances. Mrs Manigat, an avid reader of Agatha Christie thrillers, has promised a "surprise ending" in the election results.

Charles Henri Baker

A wealthy industrialist who has the backing of the entrepreneurs and promises to create jobs for the masses. His opponents accuse him of massive vote buying in the slums of Haiti and he has been involved in acrimonious exchanges with Mr Celestin. Mr Henri Baker also has to cope with unpopularity from his actions in the past when he was involved in bitter pay disputes with his workforce. The candidate says he has changed his hardline stance on industrial relations and will promote good employer-employee relations if elected.

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