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Protests against election results shut down Haiti's capital

Haiti, December 9, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Smoke rising from Petionville, Haiti, just outside Port-au-Prince, as demonstrators began burning tires and abandoned cars to block roads, on Dec. 8, 2010, one day after the election results were announced. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    United Nations peacekeeping forces patrol the streets of Petionville, on Dec. 9, 2010. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps

Today is Day Two of Port-au-Prince on lock-down: businesses closed, an unsettling quiet across the usually ruckus city, broken at intervals by the sounds of a single motorcycle or a UN armored vehicle going down our street. Over the last 48 hours, gunshots and louder blasts at which we can only guess, have also interrupted the stillness.

This morning I went to the roof of the apartments where I'm staying with Mercy Corps' expatriate staff. It's here in the Petionville area of town, which is up a bit on the mountain, so I can see all of Port-au-Prince below. The city is still smoking, though less heavily now. A light rain is falling and there are more cars on the streets, taking advantage of the lull of the morning and the rain dampening protests.

November 28 was Haiti's Presidential election, a confused and chaotic day. There were major issues at the voting centers. There were reports that many people didn't find their names on the registration lists and weren't allowed to vote. That centers didn't have enough ballots. That ballots showed up already filled out. That people stayed in voting centers overnight to stuff the ballot boxes. That centers were set on fire. That voters were intimidated if they didn't vote for certain candidates.

But while many Haitians felt that the voting process that day could not be called legitimate — in fact, many called it fraud — the country remained relatively calm. Fraud could not be fully claimed, of course, until the results came out.

A little more background on voting in Haiti. In this election, only 1.1 million people out of a potential electorate of 4.7 million cast votes — or were able to. The candidate who wins must have more than 50 percent of the vote. Since there were 19 candidates, it was clear from the outset that a run-off between the two top candidates was inevitable. The question was immediately who those top two candidates would be.

The top three candidates on election day, according to the National Observation Council, a European Union-backed election monitor, were likely Mirlande Manigat, Michel Martelly and Jude Célestin, in that order. On the street, Manigat and Martelly were the most popular — especially Martelly, a popular entertainer who to many urban poor has come to represent substantial change in Haiti. Célestin, backed by current President Preval and representing a government that many want to see gone, was thought the least favored of the three.

Many people said that if Célestin came out in the top two, that it would be clear to them that the election had been hijacked and they would take to the streets and not let up until it was cancelled — and that is why they are in the streets today.

Late Tuesday night, the final results reported by the Preval appointed Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), was 31 percent of the vote to Manigat, 22.5 percent to Célestin, and 21.8 percent to Martelly.

Since that night, the city has been shut down. Thousands of demonstrators have been in the streets, some peaceful, some violent. Smoke has hazed the overcast sky. Barricades of rubble, metal, tree trunks, burning tires, cars and dumpsters have been set up in major intersections, preventing cars from circulating. Shops are still closed, the airport shut down.

Yesterday afternoon there was a major clash between protesters and UN peacekeepers at the election office near us. At one point, we had to close the windows because tear gas and smoke were coming in. Businesses have been vandalized and some even burned. Blasts were heard last night that started rumors of concussion grenades and bombs. And this is just Port-au-Prince. There are demonstrations going on all across the country.

People here have every right to contest an election that they don't feel is fair. The United States Embassy even issued a statement that said that the results were "inconsistent" with what election observers had seen, and urged the government and election council to "respect the will of the people."

The protests have been difficult to watch though — seeing people burn and vandalize the bare remains of their earthquake-devastated capital. Do they have better options for voicing their discontent? And will the government listen to its citizens?

Mercy Corps' teams in Port-au-Prince, Mirebalais, Hinche and Saint-Marc had to halt all their programs yesterday due to safety concerns. The most concerning of which are our cholera emergency response teams in Port-au-Prince camps and the Central Plateau. Every day that their work is held up, cholera continues to spread and take more lives. Today in the Central Plateau, though, they were able to get back to work.

A march just went by, chanting for Martelly. It was actually an uplifting sight to see people passionate for the change they want to see in their country. Haitians certainly deserve much more than what they have now, and it is up to them to ask for it and make it happen.

A functioning government that serves and protects its people is critical to the long-term sustainability and success of Mercy Corps' work. We are looking forward to seeing the aspirations and desires of the Haitian people realized through a new and engaged government.