Samuel Bien Aimé woke up at 4 a.m. Tuesday morning ready to vote. After trekking 2.5 miles to the nearest polling station in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, and standing patiently in line for nearly six hours, Bien Aimé finally cast his ballot for presidential candidate Rene Preval. "I waited in misery for this," said the smiling 28-year-old as he left the polling station near the capital's Cité Soleil slum.
As a country, Haiti is no stranger to such sentiments. The country's presidential and parliamentary elections have been postponed four times since November, and given the country’s long troubled history of governance, the excitement about these elections has been brewing some time. The postponements—due to the lack of organization and coordination of the Provisional Election Council, the Organization of American States and the United Nations—have only led to more expectancy among the population. And, of course, in a country which has endured 33 military coups in its 202 years of independence, there is the anticipation of violence—despite the presence of 9,000 UN peacekeepers.
When the time to vote finally came on Tuesday, the worst fears of widespread bloodshed didn't follow. In the trash-strewn streets of Port-au-Prince, thousands of Haitians waited patiently in crowded winding lines for hours. Certainly, there were frustrations, and a fair amount of somewhat organized chaos. Many polling stations failed to open on time because election workers had failed to show or ballots were missing. There were also scuffles as voters tried to push their way past local policemen and UN troops to enter the stations. It was reported that a policeman and a voter died in an incident in Gonaives, and two elderly gentlemen reportedly died in the capital (one of asphyxiation and one of a heart attack).
But by Haitian standards—during a 1988 election, hundreds of voters were massacred at a polling station—the day went relatively smoothly. "There have been a few incidents which were unpleasant," said UN mission spokesperson David Wimhurst. "But for the most part, things have gone pretty well."
Whether the election's aftermath will proceed in similar fashion is another question. Thirty-three candidates are on the ballot, and a majority is needed to prevent a run-off on March 19. Former president and populist agronomist Rene Preval, the frontrunner, led the latest pre-election polls with about 40 percent of popular support, and judging from surveys of voters leaving stations across Port-au-Prince, appeared headed towards victory. One such Preval backer, 40-year-old Cocote Malme, spoke confidently. "He brought calm when he was president," she said at a voting station in the Bel Air neighborhood of the capital. "He will give hope to Haiti. He'll protect us."
But this is Haiti, and with a list of candidates that includes Danny Toussaint, an alleged drug smuggler running as a moderate; Charles Henry Baker (the second favorite candidate), a powerful businessman; and former president Leslie Manigat (who was ousted by the military in 1988 and is now running third in the polls), there will likely be complaints about the results. "You don't have an election, you have selection," said 18-year-old Wilmer Philogene at the voting station near Cité Soleil.
And then of course, there is the problem of Cité Soleil itself. A teeming slum on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, it is run by gangs accused of everything from drug smuggling to the recent spate of kidnappings (they reached a reported rate of 8 to 10 a day in December). The one neighborhood in the capital not controlled by UN troops, Cité Soleil was also not granted the privilege of voting booths. As a result, protests in the past weeks have prompted speculation that the slum's estimated 250,000 residents—loyal to Preval because of his previous ties to ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas party—might not vote. Although gang leaders called on citizens to turn out for the election, dozens of would-be voters could already be seen walking back to the slum at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, disappointed by what they claimed was the closure of the nearest polling station.
"They don't want Preval voters here," said Bien Aimé, reiterating a popular Cité Soleil claim that Haiti's business elite and current government would do anything to keep a populist like Preval out of power. Alleged gang leader Amaral Duclona, considered by many to be one of Cité Soleil's most powerful figures and also often referred to as Haiti's "most wanted man" on account of allegations of kidnappings and involvement in drugs (all of which he denies vehemently) told NEWSWEEK that he wouldn't vote. Of course, he has a reason. "I can't vote," he said Monday, "because I'm a wanted man."
Time will tell whether the election can be considered a real success. The results won't be officially announced until Friday, and then there is the possibility of a run-off or worse, violence. But for now, Haiti seems to have pulled off as competent an election as it could, given the circumstances. And perhaps most importantly in a country with so many reasons to doubt the effectiveness of democracy, there was optimism on Tuesday. "All Haitians are waiting for change," said 49-year-old voter Germina Paul. They may have to wait a little longer, but if Tuesday's mood is anything to go by, this election could be a small step in the right direction.