Election feud seen undermining Haiti's latest bid for stability

By Ezra Fieser | Bloomberg | Published: January 22, 2016

Allegations of fraud have cast a pall over Haiti's delayed presidential elections, threatening to undo gains made in the six years since a massive earthquake destroyed the Caribbean nation's economy and killed as many as 200,000 people.

With a run-off vote originally set for last month now scheduled for Sunday, one of the two remaining candidates is refusing to campaign and has called on voters to boycott. In a country long plagued by political turmoil, dictatorships and coups, the Organization of American States on Tuesday warned that measures put in place to guard against irregularities "have not achieved the intended level of confidence that they originally pursued."

Former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said without legitimate elections, Haiti will be hard pressed to sustain the economic progress it has made since a January 2010 earthquake, which prompted pledges of more than $10 billion in international aid.

"This is what is at stake: the economic stability, the currency, the international donors who will continue to help only if there is political stability," said Lamothe, who resigned in 2014 and has since founded Miami-based consultancy LSL World Initiative.

Even with United Nations peacekeepers continuing to bolster security and 60,000 people living in temporary camps, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country has won new investment and tried to promote itself as a tourism destination. Marriott International Inc. and billionaire telecommunication mogul Denis O'Brien teamed last year to open a $45 million hotel in Port-au-Prince, one of a handful built in recent years.

The economy has grown every year since the quake and the tourism push seems to be paying off: with a 12 percent increase in visitors in the first 10 months of 2015, Haiti had the fastest-growing tourism market in the region, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Yet political instability continues to bedevil the nation of 10.1 million, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. A failure to pass a new electoral law, which prompted Lamothe and the head of the Supreme Court to quit in late 2014, led to congress not having a quorum to even pass legislation.

Now, opposition candidate and former state construction chief Jude Celestin is refusing to campaign and has called on voters to boycott Sunday's vote. He says his rival, banana farmer Jovenel Moise, benefited from vote rigging in the first round vote last October. Moise, an ally of outgoing President Michel Martelly, rejects the accusations. An independent report published last month found instances of fraud and vote manipulation as well as cases of voting without identification numbers or proper identification.

"We are moving toward a selection, not an election," Celestin said in an interview with the Associated Press.

If a new president is not installed by Feb. 7, the country may be forced to decide between installing an interim government or continuing Martelly's term.

Moise, who has pushed investment in agriculture to grow the economy and create jobs, won the first-round vote with 33 percent support. Celestin placed second with 25 percent.

"It was a massive fraud. And now they tell us that we should just go on with the elections?" said Charles Henri Baker, a business owner who ran for president in 2006 and 2010 and now heads the Respe political party.

Baker, whose PB Apparel garment business employs 1,500 people, said he could grow his workforce to as much as 15,000 but is holding back from investing. "There are a lot of people who want to invest in this country but when you have this political instability and you're not sure what's going to happen, you're not going to," he said. "Even myself as a Haitian, I'm very unsure and I'm worried."

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