It seemed almost too good to be true, and it was. And then it wasn’t. Haitian politics played out in classic form in February, with all the drama aptly associated with this enigmatic and impoverished nation. Guns had gone underground, kidnappings had stopped and Port-au-Prince streets that had resembled target practice became accessible as an unprecedented number of voters took to the polls to vote in Haiti’s presidential and parliamentary elections February 7. The elections were as much a triumph for the Haitian people, whose resolve for change was matched only by the absence of organized violence and intimidation previously associated with Haitian elections, as they were a vote for a new government.
But like so much of what happens in Haiti, the tide of good will quickly dissolved into a sea of protest, confusion and bitter déjà vu as days dragged on without electoral resolution. Initial results showed that the most popular candidate, René Garcia Préval, was leading with more than 60 percent; when his numbers began to drop, the Carnivalesque atmosphere in the streets morphed into angry demonstrations that paralyzed the capital, halted traffic, closed schools, shut down businesses and caused flight cancellations. Partisans stormed the mountainside hotel that had become ground zero for election results, with hundreds of clothed protesters taking a dip in the pool to cool off as visiting South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu looked on from his balcony. Six days after the election, with 90 percent of the vote tabulated, Préval’s lead had dipped to 48.7 percent, just short of the 50 percent he needed to declare a first-round victory. Stolen again, the people cried, taking to the streets the next day, and the day after, until they finally heard that a technical decision had been reached allowing the Electoral Council to announce that Préval was the winner, reigniting the celebratory pumping and gyrating.
There had been reason for concern. The most polarizing figure in Haiti’s recent political arena, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had twice won the presidency and had twice been forced out, first in a 1991 military coup d’état seven months after taking office and then again in 2004, two years shy of the end of his five-year term. Although the former president currently lives in exile in South Africa with his wife and two daughters, the distance hasn’t diminished his influence on the Haitian political scene. He remains wildly popular at the same time that he is feared and despised, a contradiction that accurately reflects Haiti’s fractured society and that was played out again in the allegiances of the thirty-three presidential candidates. And therein lies the quandary, the decisive make-or-break challenge for Préval: Can he unite a country that has as many divisions as political parties? Can he negotiate a détente with an actively hostile opposition, a wary international community and armed supporters? Finally, can the man who ten years ago stumbled into his first presidential term on the coattails of his predecessor demonstrate that he is no longer Aristide’s twin?
In Haiti perception is everything. For Préval partisans, many of whom rose before dawn to form long lines that snaked down country dirt roads or alongside urban piles of garbage and sewage, no amount of explanation was going to justify their candidate having to compete in a second round. That would be like losing Aristide a third time. In contrast, anti-Aristide people viewed the presence of tens of thousands of Préval supporters on the streets as a clear signal that the tactics of the two leaders were the same, to be feared and tempered. They denounced the negotiated solution, questioning the power of mass demonstrations in a country where the rule of law has never been practiced by the book. In this case, the ambiguity of the law served to keep the lid on the powder keg: The electoral law required that blank votes be included in the final tally. An unprecedented number, about one out of twenty-five, had decreased Préval’s percentage; but when the blank votes were divided proportionally among the presidential candidates, Préval’s total tipped over the 50 percent mark, allowing a first-round victory.