Few turn out in Haiti for Senate election

Rene Preval Clear-plastic ballot boxes were nearly as empty as Port-au-Prince’s unusually deserted streets Sunday as few voters turned out for Senate elections in which candidates from a major populist party were not allowed to run.

The vote had been seen as a key step in the development of Haitian democracy and in President Rene Preval’s bid to retool the constitution and fight poverty. The international community gave Haiti’s government $12.5 million to coordinate the elections, including $3 million from the U.S.

But the vote, delayed since 2007 by political turmoil, hunger riots and storms, drew an extremely low turnout and occasional violence. Haiti’s provisional electoral council told reporters it had not calculated turnout or any results as of early evening.

Supporters of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose Fanmi Lavalas party was disqualified from the election by Haiti’s provisional electoral council, had urged an estimated 4 million registered voters not to participate.

On Sunday, poll workers napped during long stretches when no voters came by. Some would-be voters carrying government-issued registration cards said they had been turned away by poll workers who said their names were not on registration lists.

Others said they had trouble reaching the polls because police had ordered public transportation closed in an attempt to preserve order.

“When you see this kind of low turnout, you have to wonder how interested people are in an election,” said Edward Joseph, an observer with the Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington-based think tank. He said apathy or fear of election violence could be to blame.

A total of 79 candidates were vying for 12 Senate seats. No results were expected Sunday. Most races had multiple candidates and were likely to end in run-offs.

Lavalas claimed victory for Sunday’s poor showing, crediting a stop-the-vote campaign they nicknamed “Operation Closed Door.”

“The people believe in Fanmi Lavalas. That is why they did not come out today,” James Derozin, a former Lavalas lawmaker, told a reporters as polls closed around 4 p.m. Other Lavalas loyalists vowed to seek Preval’s resignation if Sunday’s results are accepted.

Others in the capital blamed the low turnout on voter apathy after what they said were years of broken promises by elected leaders.

“Since I’ve lived in Cite Soleil, nobody has come through for us. We don’t trust anyone. Who are we going to vote for?” said Fritznor Remedor, a native of the oceanside slum who directs a U.S.-supported orphanage at the site of a former gang stronghold.

Calm generally reigned during the vote. While past elections have occasioned massacres and riots, Sunday’s carless streets were instead occupied by young men and boys playing dozens of pick-up soccer games.

But there were several violent incidents. Elections were canceled in the Central Department, one of Haiti’s 10 administrative regions, after protesters raided polling places and dumped ballots in the streets of the central plateau town of Mirebalais.

A poll supervisor was shot there around 3 a.m. Sunday and is recovering in the hospital, said electoral council director general Pierre Louis Opont. Police said a man was arrested after firing guns to intimidate voters.

The council does not know who was responsible for incident but has ruled out Lavalas backers, Opont said. A date for replacement elections in the department will be set later, he added.

In Cite Soleil, supporters of Preval’s Lespwa party smashed the windows of a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying Union party supporter and Haitian folk singer Barbara Guillaume, who said she was bringing food and documents to poll workers in Cite Soleil.

Lespwa supporters said she was carrying money and food to bribe voters into supporting her candidate. Police fired shots to disperse the crowd, beat attackers with rifle butts and took them to Cite Soleil’s new, U.S.-financed police station, where other Lespwa supporters threw rocks at the building.

They were released after their candidate, former Lavalas organizer and Cite Soleil native John Joel Joseph, visited the station. Guillaume was held without charges for about an hour and released.

Shortly after returning from the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, Preval dropped his vote into a nearly empty clear plastic ballot box at a school in the capital. If his candidates win, Preval could see his economic projects and constitutional reform pass congress, where his Lespwa party already holds six of 18 Senate seats.

A majority for Lespwa would help Preval win a long-sought reform of Haiti’s 1987 constitution, increasing executive powers and allowing presidents to seek consecutive five-year terms. It would also build support for his economic programs, meant to relieve poverty in a nation where 80 percent of people live on less than $2 a day.

Preval, who was prime minister under Aristide, was elected president in 2006 with strong Lavalas backing. But many of Aristide’s supporters now consider him and others in his party traitors for failing to return the exiled Aristide to Haiti.

Lavalas petitioned the electoral council to allow its candidates to run for Senate, but its case was weakened by a split in the party. Council President Frantz-Gerard Verret said its candidates were disqualified because they failed to produce documents signed by Aristide, the party’s leader who was flown to exile in Africa on a U.S. plane during a 2004 rebellion.

Twelve seats are now vacant after 10 senators’ terms expired, one died in a car crash and another resigned.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.