In a country that has had only rare glimpses of democracy, a surprising number of citizens still have faith in the future, but these elections are putting that faith to the test.
An unelected provisional government has been running Haiti since the ouster of the country's first popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, almost two years ago, and many say they are anxious for the restoration of democracy.
But logistical problems could outweigh the population's strong desire to vote. Not only do would-be voters not know when they can go to the polls; many have not yet been told where they will vote. Others have been assigned to polling centers so far away they couldn't vote for their own mayor or representative.
Some say nothing can stop them. Marcel Denis looks about 90 years old. (He doesn't know his exact age.) Sitting outside his house shucking peas with frail, trembling hands, he said he definitely planned to vote even though it would involve being pushed a mile in a wooden cart to the polling center.
"I'll be there for the flag," he said. "I'll support whoever is elected because right now we have no presidency."
Even some voter card distributors, well aware of the mess behind the scenes, are determined optimists. Voting station operator Jean-Herold Jean said major problems won't affect the outcome of elections.
"The voting centers are too small, so some people are going to have to wait in line six hours, and a lot of people will have to walk at least an hour to their centers," he said. "But people don't really complain because they're going to vote anyway. If people really need a change and believe in change, they'll vote."
He and his fellow electoral office employees said they are ignoring the latest election postponement. "People say we're no longer having elections Jan. 8," he said, "but there are no new dates, so without a new date, we'll just continue to believe and act as though elections will happen then."
But some would-be voters know they might be thwarted. One of Denis' neighbors said he is determined to vote but acknowledged he might have to return to his factory job in the Dominican Republic before elections happen. Another neighbor said that if, like many others, she is assigned to a polling station on a mountain an hour's hike away, she just won't vote because she can't take that much time off work.
And some are growing frustrated, asking, "How could things be so messed up?" Sixty million dollars, mostly from the European Union, the United States and Canada, has been spent on the elections so far. And the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the body in charge of dispensing the funds, predicts it will have to spend an additional $14 million on local elections.
Still, there are only 804 polling centers for Haiti's 3.5 million-strong electorate, far fewer than in past Haitian elections.
UNDP records show that some of the major expenses and headaches arise from the country's poor security and infrastructure. The cost of electoral security guards alone is more than $9 million. These guards are needed because Haiti has a weak police force and no military, and the 9,000 UN peacekeepers on the ground are not considered enough to secure both the country and the ballot boxes.
In an effort to recruit guards without ties to private security companies, the former military or the police -- all deemed potentially biased -- most of those hired have no security experience, and thus have required significant training.
And still the 3,600 hired guards are not enough. Poll workers are afraid to set up voting centers in Cite Soleil, Haiti's notoriously dangerous slum on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Hassen said election organizers are still trying to decide whether to place voting centers in the area, where 100,000 residents have registered to vote.
Another great expense is electoral facilities and infrastructure, which cost more than $7 million because election planners started out with nothing. All prior voting sites had been destroyed by vandals, and without steady electricity in most of the country, organizers had to purchase 170 gas-powered generators and 260 solar panels.
The lack of infrastructure also means a helicopter will have to be deployed to pick up ballots from remote sites once the votes are in so they can be counted in a timely fashion.
But the question of why things are so chaotic has more to do with building a democratic foundation than money, elections planners say. According to Pierre Richard Duchemin, a member of Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council, the body overseeing the entire process, election planning was crippled from the start.
The PEC is comprized of nine councilors selected by various sectors of society, none of whom has any experience organizing elections, and they are supposed to oversee the work of elections experts from around the world.
Duchemin complained the power of the PEC has been undermined by the government. Others say the government and international organizations had to work over the head of the PEC because the council is dysfunctional.
Early infighting led to the resignation of the council's first president, and problems continued. A power struggle between the PEC and regional bodies to whom it was supposed to delegate led to a complete communication breakdown. The result: the UNDP spent more than $1 million on salaries and transportation for regional elections staffers who haven't been working because they've received no direction from the PEC.
But some candidates and elections organizers insist that the problems can be solved in a matter of weeks. The elections won't be perfect, but they'll be a first step.
"We are not going to solve the problems of Haiti," Duchemin said of the anticipated elections. "We are going to have a good starting point if, and only if, we do what has to be done so that the people in this country don't feel that they have been rejected or tricked."
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January 24, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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