By Jacqueline Charles and Trenton Daniel, Miami Herald
As Haiti’s electoral body reviews the applications of 34 presidential hopefuls, much remains unanswered.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — The surprise decision came a day before the Saturday deadline, 1 ½ hours before midnight and after weeks of round-the-clock meetings, political bickering and consultations.
Two-time prime minister and assumed heir-apparent to the Haitian presidency Jacques-Edouard Alexis would not be President René Préval’s pick to succeed him. Instead, Préval was tapping Swiss-educated mechanical engineer and head of the government’s road building outfit, Jude Célestin, to represent his INITE (Unity) platform. His nomination blocked by senators, Alexis quit the platform and filed with another party.
“Jacques-Edouard Alexis is a political leader who made his choice,” said Haitian Sen. Joseph Lambert, the national coordinator for INITE, as he officially declared Célestin, 48, the platform’s presidential choice. “We have made a choice who is a unifier, a mobilizer, who responds to not just the majority of the people in INITE but someone who calms down the situation. . . a heavy weight.”
As Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) begins the process of reviewing the paperwork of 34 presidential hopefuls, including Haiti-born Hip Hop star Wyclef Jean, there is uncertainty and tension about which candidates will make the final list to be released Aug. 17. The presidential race has attracted a wide spectrum of candidates, including at least seven self-declared, and undeclared candidates from former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas political party.
But while some in the international community are optimistic of the increasing momentum, others are waiting to see if the expected political fallout from the electoral body’s decision on the candidates’ qualifications will plunge an already quake-ravaged Haiti into violence or governmental crisis.
“This is a very volatile situation. The easiest thing they can say is `You are all candidates.’ But I don’t know if they will do that,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political expert at the University of Virginia. “It’s going to be fascinating to see how many are in the race after Aug. 17.”
Should it accept all or most of the candidates including Jean, former prime ministers Alexis and Yvon Neptune, and Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner and former Aristide cabinet member, it will make for a complicated race where anyone can end up the winner.
At issue are the seven constitutional requirements one must meet to run for president of Haiti, and how the CEP will decide who among the hopefuls meet them. Will it lean on the side of a legal interpretation, or political influence in its decision-making as it determines the fate of some of the most high-profile candidates, several of whom face legal questions about their qualifications to run?
“Any decision they take carries risk,” said Monferrier Dorval, a law professor at the State University of Haiti.
Even before the calendar was published for November’s presidential and legislative elections, the CEP faced strong criticism over its ability to carry out the tasks in a country where the quake displaced 1.5 million people and electoral cards are under the rubble.
Members of the opposition and a powerful U.S. Republican lawmaker all demanded its overhaul. Préval ignored the demands. Then last week, members of his own coalition cried foul after the council issued a controversial decision opening the door for Alexis and three other former government ministers to enter the race.
The body ruled that because Haiti currently has no functioning parliament, it would allow the former ministers to file if they provide a favorable report from the government’s accounting office stating they had not misused state funds. The decision immediately set off protests.
On Monday, the CEP’s eight sitting members reiterated their position . Earlier in the day, Alexis presented reporters with copies of a 2009 letter he submitted to parliament seeking the constitutionally required clearance to run.
“Nobody can use this aspect of the discharge as an obstacle,” said Alexis, who was sacked in 2008 by the Haitian senators following food riots. But even if he manages to qualify on the discharge issue, Alexis risks possible disqualification due to his party, Mobilization for the Progress of Haiti.
MPH was founded by Samir Mourra, a Haitian American, who has opposed every administration Alexis served in and who was barred from running for president in 2006 because he held U.S. citizenship. Observers point out that Haitian law forbids non-Haitian citizens from practicing politics in the country.
“He’s committing political suicide,” Fatton said of Alexis.“It looks like a desperate attempt to get into the race.”
Alexis defended his choice of MPH, saying, “If they say I’m not eligible, that’s because they are scared of me.”
Alexis conceded that his chances of rising to the presidency would be greater if he were indeed INITE’s candidate. But he added that he enjoys more freedom now.
“Jacques-Edouard Alexis doesn’t negotiate. Jacques-Edouard Alexis is not flexible, Jacques-Edouard Alexis is too rigid. If they say this in a good sense, it’s a compliment,” he said.
Aside from Alexis, the CEP also holds the fate of several other high-profile candidates as it determines whether they meet the residency requirement. Among them are sometime-South Florida residents Jean, konpa star Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly and Miami activist Lavarice Gaudin. All have pointed to their Haitian passports as proof they do not hold dual nationality. But their possession of a U.S. green card also raises legal questions about whether they meet the requirement of consecutive five years of residency in Haiti.
The five-year requirement has always been interpreted to mean five years of residency prior to election. “Legally, you cannot reside in both countries. Legally, they cannot compete,” Fatton said. “They have to make up their minds: Are we going to be legalistic and eliminate seven to eight candidates, or be political?
“This is a real mess,” he said. “It’s difficult to know what will happen until we have the official list of candidates.”
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