By Jacqueline Charles
PORT-AU-PRINCE – If you thought the 2000 Florida presidential election was mind-boggling, imagine this: 29,000 candidates jockeying for 1,420 provincial and municipal positions.
That’s the enormous challenge facing Haiti’s electoral officials as they prepare to finally hold long-delayed local elections on Dec. 3.
The elections are yet another critical step in putting Haiti’s tenuous democracy back on course following the elections earlier this year of President Ren� Pr�val and the country’s first functioning parliament in nearly a decade.
”We’ve already elected a president and parliament. Now we have to replace the mayors and other local representatives who are not legitimate,” said Micha Gaillard, a spokesman for the Fusion Social Democratic Party. In the wake of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster from office in 2004, mayors were appointed by the U.S.-backed interim government.
But many questions remain about the upcoming vote, ranging from concerns about Haiti’s ability to pull off a successful ballot to possible violence and doubts on whether the country can continue to afford so many elections.
The elections, whose $14 million cost is being financed by foreign donors, marks the third time this year that Haitians will head to the polls — presidential and legislative elections in February and a legislative runoff in April.
WINNER TAKE ALL
The Dec. 3 balloting — which also includes elections for 14 still undecided national legislative seats — is winner take all. But to avoid some of the other problems that plagued the February elections, the country’s Provisional Electoral Council, known as CEP, is taking several steps. Among them:
��Relocating 30,000 of the 3.5 million registered voters in hopes of avoiding a repeat of chaotic scenes of voters wandering aimlessly in search of their voting spot.
”We feel fairly confident that most people are going to find their names in the . . . list that shows the picture, the names of each voter per voting station,” said Jacques Bernard, director general of the CEP.
��Adding 32 new voting centers, bringing the total to 834 encompassing 9,228 polling stations, to lessen complaints by voters that they have to walk too far to vote.
��Keeping a close eye on the security situation. Though the 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission here has tightened security in the capital, sporadic violence continues to dog densely populated slums.
”There may be areas, a few little areas, where we may not be able to conduct elections,” said Bernard, noting that if violence breaks out, the vote will be canceled and rescheduled in those communities only. “We are following the situation and will not make the decision until the day before.”
Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States, said that while the security issue remains challenging, he’s optimistic it will not “disturb the process.”
”The government of Haiti is ready, the electoral commission is ready, and I hope the same atmosphere, which we saw during the presidential elections, we will see again: massive turnout, high degree of discipline and ordely conduct,” he told The Miami Herald after a recent visit here.
Edmond Mulet, overall head of the U.N-mission here, said although the U.N. is less involved in the local balloting preparation than it was in the presidential elections, it stands ”ready to provide” security and logistical support.
It’s anyone’s guess how many voters will actually cast ballots for mayors, vice mayors, town delegates and council seats. Haitians have always put more emphasis on presidential races and this year is no exception, as evidenced by the absence of campaign posters from city streets.
”The candidates are tired with the campaign,” Gaillard said, adding they also are broke after two years of campaigning for elections initially set for Oct. 9, 2005.
Still, it doesn’t mean the vote is any less important in a country where the majority live in rural communities.
”When you elect these local governments, it allows the country to decentralize power. You don’t want a system where the powers are centralized in the capital,” said Lesley Richards, a program officer for the Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems.