Lackluster campaign augurs ill for Haiti presidential vote

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AFP) – The legitimacy of the future Haitian president is already compromised two weeks before the vote gets underway, with a lackluster electoral campaign and a very low expected turnout.

The record number of candidates to lead the poorest country in the Americas in and of itself is a tell-tale sign of the weakness of the Haitian political fabric.

And the challenges awaiting the next leader are huge. 

According to the International Organization for Migration, about 60,000 victims of the January 2010 earthquake – which killed more than 200,000 people – are still living in makeshift camps, nearly six years after the disaster that destroyed the capital.

About 60 per cent of the population lives under the poverty threshold, and UNICEF worries that 40 percent of Haitians suffer from food insecurity.

"The political parties only exist when it's time for elections, and the candidates are not mobilizing voters the way they should," a foreign diplomat said, requesting anonymity in order to speak freely on the issue.

Among the 54 aspiring successors of Michel Martelly, most are unknown to the general public. Only a dozen candidates stand out, but not enough to generate significant voter enthusiasm.

"In the current environment, there is no warm welcome, no enthusiasm on the part of the people to discuss the elections," said Marie-Yolene Gilles of the national human rights network. 

"We keep saying we're in a democracy, and elections must take place to renew the country's political staff, but there the voters have no determination."

Local media and professional associations try to organize debates to inform voters of the stakes at hand, but the main candidates rarely participate.

In this country of 10 million, the electoral campaign tends to be little more than a popularity contest. 

Candidates who have raised the necessary funds to travel extensively organize parades around the time of Carnival to present themselves to the voters.

Posters of the candidates cover the walls in cities, but they rarely present their views and, when available, their political platforms lack details, including on such basic things as their proposed budget. 

Frantz Duval, editor-in-chief of Haiti's Le Nouvelliste newspaper, flatly denounces the unrealistic nature of campaign speeches.

"If you pay attention for just two minutes to most of the presidential candidates, you could easily think they come from Mars," he said.

"How is it possible for Haiti's presidential candidates to make such blunders on our country's ability to finance extravagant projects they promise to deliver?"

Haiti, which the World Bank says is one of the most unequal countries around the globe, lacks the necessary revenues to finance the reforms promised by candidates.

In one example of how much the country depends on foreign aid, half of Haiti's health expenses are financed by non-governmental organizations, according to the World Bank.

Those eking out a living in the informal economy and through ingenuity are disillusioned with the political world.

"They keep promising us jobs. But when they get elected, we just see them drive by in their big SUVs with their friends," said Saint-Anne Dorleus, who has been selling fruit for the past 15 years on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

"For us the people, there's no point to vote."

Haiti's first election since Martelly came to power illustrated this major break between the majority of the population and the political elite.

During the first round of legislative elections in August, just 18 percent of voters cast their ballots.

Presidential elections usually see bigger participation, without ever being massive.

During the second round of presidential elections in 2011, less than a quarter of citizens made their voices heard at the polls.

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