PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — “I don’t see how anybody could possibly, possibly, commit fraud in this election.” So said Jacques Bernard, director general of Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP by its French initials) at a February 6 press conference the night before the first election since the 2004 overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Polling stations opened hours late, and were atrociously overcrowded and confused. Sixty-five polling stations were destroyed, but no significant violence marred the day. Haitians showed an overwhelming will to vote, and turned out in enormous numbers. That night, a U.N. official told me he hoped to complete the count by the next morning.
But the next morning passed in silence. The first announcement of partial results did not come until Thursday night, 48 hours after the polls had closed, with about 10 percent of the ballots counted. CEP officials released them by region, refusing journalists’ requests for national totals. “You can make that calculation yourself,” said council president Max Mathurin.
A few reporters did the math. The results reflected the sentiments on the street: 61.5 percent had voted for former president Rene Garcia Preval, beloved of Haiti’s poor. The figure forecasted victory in a field of 34 candidates, especially incredible since Preval had barely campaigned, had not lifted a rhetorical finger to combat his opponents, had refused to make any promises, and had dodged the press until a week before the vote. He was not even in the capital, but had retreated to his modest home in the tiny highland village of Marmelade.
By Friday morning, my source at the U.N. was fuming. “The CEP is partisan, completely partisan,” he said. “But we’re not going to let them fuck this up.” The ballots he was seeing, he said, were overwhelmingly for Preval — “clearly over 60 percent.”
That night, the CEP announced that about half the votes had been counted. Preval had dropped to just over the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. (His closest competitor, Leslie Manigat, who briefly served as a military-installed president in the late 1980s, had at that point received only 11 percent.) The percentage of invalid votes was strangely high, just shy of 8 percent of the total. Complicating matters: The CEP counted ballots left blank as part of the total, further diluting Preval’s lead. “You know how Haiti is,” CEP President Mathurin quipped. “There are a lot of people who really don’t have the capacity to vote.”
PORT-AU-PRINCE HAD BEEN QUIET all week — tense with anticipation, but quiet. So Saturday morning I caught a ride up to Marmelade with a couple of friends, correspondents for Venezuela’s Telesur network. It’s a six-hour drive down ferociously potholed roads, unpaved most of the way. Preval’s face — gray-bearded and not quite smiling, looking as if he were waiting for you to speak first — gazed out from campaign posters on nearly every wall along Marmelade’s cobbled streets. The white stucco house that belongs to Preval (or, as he is known in Marmelade, the President) is a humble affair. It is not the largest house in Marmelade, or even on its block.
A few of the President’s bodyguards, large men with conspicuous bulges beneath their untucked shirts, stood around the house. Two Argentine soldiers in blue U.N. helmets guarded the corner. Children chased each other through the park across the street. A full moon hid behind the clouds. We got a call from Port-au-Prince: thousands had filled the streets and surrounded the National Palace. They pulled down the posters for all the candidates from the palace walls, leaving only Preval’s.
At last, Bob Manuel, Preval’s campaign manager, stepped out on the porch and beckoned us inside. The CEP had just released the latest figures. Preval had dropped to 49.7 percent. Inside, the President sat on a low bench, smiling, a phone at his ear. He wore Levi’s and a checked polo shirt, slip-ons with no socks. A bare fluorescent bulb lit the room.
The President hung up the phone and switched to a rocking chair. The phone rang. Bob Manuel answered it. The President crossed his legs, smiled and scratched slowly at his beard. Another phone rang. Manuel talked on both at once. The President laughed and gently stamped his feet, then listened. “Tell them to be calm,” he told Manuel.
He turned to us. “Forty-nine percent, did you hear?” He seemed amused. But the results were still partial, he pointed out. “All the areas we’re strongest they haven’t counted.”
The President asked how long we’d stay. We hadn’t decided. “Stay,” he said. “We’ll put on a concert for you tomorrow night.”
IN THE MORNING, AT THE EDGE of the President’s porch, a group of men argued over a printout of the most recent CEP results. The listed figures matched the previous night’s announcement, 49 percent. But the pie graph at the top of the page gave Preval 52 percent. The discrepancy proved something, everyone agreed, but no one knew quite what. At about 9:30 the President emerged. He unbuttoned his jeans, tucked in his shirt, buttoned again. He eavesdropped on the men’s argument and went back inside. An hour passed. The President came out again, shaking his head. “It’s not that they don’t know how to do the numbers,” he said. “They’re cheating badly.”