President's man off ballot for Haiti election


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They got there in the end, but the tortuous route Haiti took to finally arrive at the two candidates who will contest next month's presidential election can hardly fill its people with confidence about the integrity of their nation's democracy.

After talking through the night, the country's Electoral Commission announced yesterday morning that the 20 March run-off will pit its former first lady, Mirlande Manigat, against Michel Martelly, a well-known carnival singer better known as "Sweet Mickey".

The decision means that Jude Celestin, the candidate backed by the current President, Rene Preval, has been officially removed from contention. Although he was found to have finished second in November's preliminary round of voting, that result was said to have been achieved by way of widespread voter fraud.

No place will, however, be found for a candidate representing the Fanmi Lavalas, the left-leaning party once led by the former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which was controversially prevented from contesting the election after mistakes were found in the paperwork it submitted to the Electoral Commission.

The announcement, made at around 7am local time, was greeted with applause on the streets of Petionville, the suburb of Port-au-Prince where the Commission's office is situated.

It also met with relief among business owners, who had boarded up shops and offices 24 hours earlier, in anticipation of riots expected if Mr Celestin had been allowed on to the final ballot paper ahead of Mr Martelly.

The next month will therefore bring a battle between supporters of the socially conservative Mrs Manigat, a former law professor whose husband, Leslie, briefly served as president in 1988, and Mr Martelly, a charismatic performer running on a law-and-order platform.

Mrs Manigat has the support of older Haitians along with most of the business elite; Mr Martelly appeals to a younger, and poorer, demographic.

Whoever wins will be expected to oversee the spending of billions of dollars of aid which was pledged following last January's earthquake but has yet to be released by international donors.

Whether the election will be free and fair remains to be seen. Haiti's voter records were destroyed in last year's disaster, and roughly a quarter of its civil service were among the 200,000 to 300,000 victims. November's first round of voting was marked by violence and fraud which – on election day itself – saw almost every candidate call for voting to be abandoned.

Under intense international pressure, President Preval's Inite (Unity) party announced last week that it intended to withdraw Mr Celestin – the biggest beneficiary of ballot rigging – from the race. But Mr Celestin himself refused to publicly confirm his resignation, leading to uncertainty over whether his challenge could legally be scrapped.

The Electoral Commission talked through the night on Wednesday at its headquarters, a former gym that became its home after the previous builing collapsed in the earthquake.

The length of deliberations led to speculation that it was preparing to ignore calls for Mr Martelly, who finished a narrow third in the disputed first round, to replace Mr Celestin.

Given the chaotic nature of proceedings so far, there remains scepticism that the coming run-off will accurately reflect the will of the Haitian people.

Although the United States and its allies are happy with both Mr Martelly and Ms Manigat's presence on the ballot sheet, many international charities and pressure groups believe that the electoral process has been fatally compromised.

They say the entire election should be scrapped and staged again, with proper independent oversight of polling and vote-counting stations, and a place found for Fanmi Lavalas on the ballot sheet.