By Agustina Laurito, staff editor On November 28 Haiti held a presidential election to choose Rene Préval’s successor. The election was characterized by fraud, corruption and low turnout. After a series of protests, it was determined last week that Michel Martelly will compete against Mirlande Manigat in the March 20 runoff election. Despite this advance, in a country still dealing with the crippling consequences of last year's devastating earthquake, and where institutional weakness is the norm, the road to the runoff election is full of challenges.
As during the first round, low turnout could be a potential problem. Only 28 percent of voters participated in the November 28 elections. If this situation is repeated in the runoff election it could call into question the mandate of the candidate who wins the race. There is always the challenge that supporters of the losing candidate will take to the streets, extending the instability that has marked this election cycle.
Moreover, given the experience of November 28, a significant problem is how to assure transparent and fair elections. International actors such as NGOs and the Organization of American States (OAS) are calling for close scrutiny and the replacement of poll workers involved in fraud, and the OAS will send at least 200 international observers. News outlets in Haiti have reported that both Mr. Martelly and Ms. Manigat are calling for changes in the much-maligned Electoral Council (CEP) to prevent massive fraud, but they differ about the extent of the reform. Even if there is the political will to carry out such reforms, there are no assurances that they will take place in time for the runoff.
Recently, former Dictator Baby Doc Duvalier returned to Haiti, and former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has received a passport to do the same. The arrival of these two controversial figures could add more instability to an already charged political environment and complicate the prospects of a peaceful election and government transition.
President René Préval, on his part, announced that he will extend his tenure in power through the runoff election and until May 20 to oversee the transition. Haiti is at a crucial time in its history; the challenges on the road to the election are just one of the many the country and its people have to overcome. If they manage the transition successfully, it will be a key step in the rebuilding process and perhaps a promise for a better future.