In Haiti, there is an ongoing joke that the democratic process is not known as an election but a selection — implying a winnowing of the votes that has little to do with popular suffrage. On Sunday, the level of irregularities, reports of violence at voting centers and overall probability of voter fraud simply contributed to the notion. Twelve out of the 19 candidates for the presidency called a press conference midday of Nov. 28 to demand a suspension of the vote due to voter irregularities and fraud in this Caribbean country’s first elections — legislative as well as presidential — since the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake. Their implication: the vote was being skewed in favor of the incumbent government.
But the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP, the initials in French for Conseil Electoral Provisoire) insists that voter fraud was minimal and that there are no plans for another election. At a press conference, they announced that only about 3% of all of Haiti’s polling stations had been closed due to violence or vandalism. “The election of Nov. 28 was successful even in the most terrible circumstances,” said CEP president Gaillot Dorsinvil. “We can’t say that during the elections there weren’t some irregularities, but we will investigate them.” Dorsinvil said he had no comment concerning the 12 candidates’ call to suspend elections. He said he viewed their demand as a political move.
But for most of election day, chaos seemed to rule. In a high school in Pétionville, a suburb of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, it felt more like the last day of school than election day with waves of excited but confused young faces passing through the iron-barred doors, right by several U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police officers sitting at a dilapidated desk. Antenor Darelus, 25, skimmed his finger on the typed list of eligible voters outside of one of the dimly lit classrooms. “They say I can’t vote because my name is not on the list,” Darelus shouted over the bustling crowd around him. “I voted here in 2006. You have a card, but now they tell you that you can’t vote.”
It was virtually a nationwide experience. With more than 1 million people displaced by the earthquake, there were reports from all over the country that voters were turned away because their names could not be found on the election list. The incumbent government’s candidate, Jude Célestin, voted at the same station and experienced firsthand the jumble of election day. His electoral-card photo did not match the image on the voter list, and he was forced to vote by provisional ballot. (A vapid candidate whose campaign was buoyed only because he was the official successor to President René Préval, Célestin did not join the candidates questioning the legitimacy of the elections.)
Supporters of kompa music star Michel Martelly seemed to predominate on the streets, traveling in a caravan down Haiti’s only highway. As they roamed, they tore down posters of Célestin. “I’m against Célestin because he’s going to do the same thing Préval did,” says Kelly Williams, a Martelly supporter who says she couldn’t vote because her electoral card was stolen. Préval, who came to power because of his association with ousted and controversial President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, frustrated the ex-President’s fervent followers for not bringing him back from exile as well as reacting passively to the earthquake.
The crowd of Martelly supporters ended up downtown in the Champs de Mars, which became the site where Martelly, front-runner Mirlande Manigat and Jean Henry Céant, ally of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, participated in a rally protesting the conduct of the elections and called for more protests. At one point, Martelly and one other candidate were joined by pop superstar Wyclef Jean, who was disqualified from running for the Haitian presidency in mid-August because the U.S.-based musician failed to meet residency requirements.
In some places, the presence of U.N. peacekeepers (who go under the French acronym MINUSTAH) infuriated some Haitians, who associate them with the Préval government as well as the spread of cholera and a rather passive reaction to the Jan. 12 earthquake. Indeed, some voters accused the MINUSTAH troops of intervening in favor of Célestin, though TIME saw no evidence of such actions.
The word from foreign election observers was mixed. Tobias Metzner, who works for an NGO, says the vote in southern Haiti was relatively uneventful. But he says that the elections could not be held properly because of a lack of resources. “At some voting stations, there were no pens to mark the ballots,” says Metzner. One bit of relatively good news: the Haitian National Police reported only one death related to the polls.
No one was expected to take the presidency outright with this vote. But there are still confusing reports as to who was ahead. Many have Martelly in the lead, but no official results are available from CEP yet. Those will not be released till, at the very least, a week from now. If no presidential candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held on Jan. 16.