Martelly elections

In Haiti’s upcoming elections, polling has become the topic du jour

Haitian music star-turned-presidential candidate Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly divides his time on the campaign trail between chatting with voters and asking Facebook friends and Twitter followers to vote for him on one of several cyber polls.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (MCT) — Haitian music star turned presidential candidate Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly divides his time on the campaign trail between chatting with voters and asking Facebook friends and Twitter followers to vote for him on one of several cyber polls.

On radio airwaves, listeners are asked to cast their vote for their preferred presidential candidate.

Traditionally carried out discreetly, polls both scientific and impromptu are now aggressively public in Haiti and becoming the topic du jour as voters prepare to make their choice in Sunday’s presidential and legislative elections.

Even though their validity is hotly debated, polling is being used to size up candidates, gauge interest among voters and, among business owners, decide who should receive financial backing.

Recently, a financially strapped Mirlande Manigat received a high-profile visit from a cellular company seeking to back her presidential bid, after her climb in the polls.

Conducting polls in Haiti is an expensive venture complicated by the country’s limited Internet service, dictatorship past, rugged terrain, lack of home phones and reliable data.

To compensate, pollsters often go “door-to-door” visiting tent cities and far-flung communities in mountainous rural villages.

“Regardless of whether you like the polls or not, they are the talk of the day,” said Reginald Boulos, long a believer in polling and chairman of the private sector Economic Forum, which commissioned four polls of the upcoming elections.

With 950 people running for 110 legislative seats and five strong candidates in a crowded field of 19 presidential candidates, a runoff is highly likely.

“If anybody from any party thought they could rig the elections, the polls are making it 100 times more difficult for them to do so,” Boulos said.

This month, the Economic Forum published its third election poll, questioning 6,000 Haitians countrywide with a margin of error of 1.27 percentage points. The survey was conducted by a local firm, known by the acronym BRIDES, founded by Frantz Fortunat, a former director of the government’s national statistics office.

The fourth and final poll will be published Thursday, three days before the vote.

But the most recent survey immediately triggered reactions from the various camps.

Manigat, a longtime opposition leader who dismissed a previous BRIDES poll that showed her trailing, smiled after the most recent survey showed her with a lead of 8 percentage points over opponent Jude Celestin, President Rene Preval’s anointed successor.

Celestin’s camp, meanwhile, questioned the poll’s validity and said it was conducting its own poll.

Martelly’s campaign reportedly conducted an internal survey that indicated he and Celestin are virtually tied in second place, with Manigat way in front, according to those familiar with it.

Martelly maintains that the most telling response comes from fans on the ground. “Everywhere I visit, I sign my name and I lock it in,” he said. “Micky is gaining ground, every day.”

Opponent and fellow Twitter user Charles-Henri Baker said while he doesn’t doubt the professionalism of the BRIDES staff, he does question how respondents were chosen.

“Polls cannot be the ‘gospel’ as to who will win,” said Baker, who recently emerged ahead of Manigat in an unscientific text message poll of 13,000 people. “We do not yet have a ‘modern’ country and it is premature to view electoral polling as a sign of ‘modernity.’ ”

One believer in the polls is Preval.

When the second BRIDES poll was published, Preval — who seeks to control parliament and has been playing chief strategist for his INITE (UNITY) coalition’s electoral bids — studied the survey, race by race, evaluating where his 104 candidates stood in relation to their opponents.

Then, like a general heading an army, he dispatched a network of operatives across the country in hope of keeping his candidates ahead where they were leading and to help them gain ground where they were not.

“Preval is the best Haitian politician, not the best president, in the last 20 years,” said Jean Junior Joseph, a political blogger who was press secretary for Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue between 2004-2006. “He knows that polls can influence the voters by creating a perception.”

On an almost daily basis, Joseph and other Haitian bloggers debate the validity of the polls, questioning whether they have been manipulated and asking whether they truly reflect the sentiments on the ground in a country where each camp advertises drawing thousands of supporters at rallies.

Some have accused Boulos of using the poll to manipulate the elections on behalf of his candidate. But Boulos defends the work, pointing out that the supposedly favored candidate changes depending on the camp making the accusation.

“They say Boulos is manipulating it to help Jude or to support Madame Manigat or to push Jean-Henry Ceant up. At the end of the day, I am helping the major five candidates,” he said.

Like many, Boulos is baffled by the plethora of Haitians who every five years register to run for president, each believing he or she can win.

“It’s not an exact science,” Boulos said of polling. “But you’re replacing the dream that somebody had — they saw in their dream they can be president or God told them they could be president of Haiti — with numbers, with reality.”

Recently Haitian Americans joined the fray, with the Washington-D.C. based National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians releasing a poll it financed. It showed that Ceant was favored for the presidency “by nearly three of four 72 percent respondents” living in post-quake tent cities in the capital, said pollster Shawnta Walcott.

“You can bet on a highly contested second-round showing,” said Walcott. “The race is too close to call.”

Still, in a country where data is hard to come by and the legacy of dictatorship has made many Haitians reluctant to say how they really feel, questions remain about the dependability of polling in Haiti.

“It’s always been very complicated to do polling,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a political strategist who conducts regular polling in the neighboring survey-friendly Dominican Republic. “It’s a population that is a bit more reserved given its history.”

But polling, he said, does not make an election victory.

“You win by organizing people and getting them out to vote on the day of elections,” Gamarra said.

“You have to have the well-oiled traditional Latin America and Caribbean machine to take people from their homes to voting booths and take them back. It sounds unfair, but it’s the only way to get people out to vote. Apathy is a very powerful force.”

(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.