The Artibonite Department has a reputation for being cho (hot) during elections. This post-election morning we left Desarmes at 8:00 AM, heading to Port-Au-Prince via Mirebalais. We were greeted by a convoy of more than 5 MINUSTAH trucks and tanks, frantically motioning at us to turn around. It seems that a roadblock had been constructed ahead by protesters frustrated with yesterday's election. Not wanting to risk that things might turn ugly, we turned around to come back through Saint Marc. I was wary of being behind so many UN vehicles, because in my experience their mere presence incites the kind of violence that we were trying to avoid. When we got to Deschapelles, an angry group was constructing a roadblock in front of us out of tires and rocks but we negotiated our way through and made it back to Port-Au-Prince without incident.
I was with three other election monitors from RNDDH, the Reseau National de Defense de Droits Humains (National Human Rights Defense Network), one of the most prominent Haitian human rights organizations and an MCC partner since 1995. We spent Sunday traveling through the Artibonite as election monitor supervisors - checking in on RNDDH election monitors stationed in voting centers throughout the Department, and also doing monitoring of our own in each center that we visited.
In brief, the day was exhausting and discouraging.
We began the day at 5:30 AM in Desarmes, where the voting center opened more or less on time. By the time MCC staff in Desarmes showed up to vote after church, though, the center had run out of ballots. From Desarmes, we drove far beyond Gonaives through five rivers on a rutted out road to Ennery and Savane Carée. There, I was astounded by the number of people that had turned out to vote. Because vehicles are not allowed to circulate on election day, many voters in rural places had to walk miles to reach a voting center.
From where I stood in the corner of a voting station at the Ecole Nationale de Savane Carée, I could see the voters' ballots as they chose their candidates. The representatives of each political party (mandatè) were even closer to the cardboard partition that was an attempt to provide voters with privacy. Sporadic arguments broke out among the mandatè as they watched people vote.
Approaching Gonaives around 12:00, we came across the first of several places where we would witness the elections end prematurely because of unrest. In Minguette, a small riot was taking place on the road in front of us as the police arrested a mandatè from Ayiti ann Aksyon who had apparently punched a representative of Alternative. Rock throwing ensued as voters who had lined up to vote left without casting their ballots.
Everywhere we went, but particularly at the centers in Gonaives, registered voters were unable to find their names on electoral rolls. In Gonaives there was also a discrepancy between the electoral rolls posted outside of each voting station and the lists of registered voters inside. Although the situation was calm while we were there, rumors of violence throughout the day kept many voters at home. Flipping through the list of voters in one voting station, I noticed that less than 20% of the names listed had signatures next to them. While we were there, we received a call that a voting center in Cawo, where RNDDH had posted an observer, had yet to receive any ballots.
Part of our mandate as observers was to monitor the ballot counting process, preferably in a voting center close to Desarmes so that we wouldn't be out long after dark. We decided to head towards Verrettes, where we hoped to be by 4:00 PM when the elections ended. Our plan was to stop in l'Estere and Desdunes to check on our monitors on the way. We were within sight of the voting center in l'Estere when we noticed a crowd forming. Suddenly the crowd started running towards our vehicle and away from rocks and police bullets. We heard that members of Inite, the party currently in power, were behind the disruption, but didn't stick around long enough to confirm.
On a long detour through Marchand Dessalines, we came across an empty voting center scattered with ballots in Pont Benoit. The MINUSTAH soldiers stationed in front told us that Inite mandatè disrupted the ballot counting when it became clear that they were losing to Mirlande Manigat's RNDP party. We received reports of this happening in other parts of the Artibonite, as well.
Our last stop was the Ecole Nationale de Seguy in Petite Riviere de l'Artibonite. Just as the ballot counting got underway, mandatè started hearing reports of incidents and violence elsewhere. We pulled away just as it looked like the agitated crowd was about to storm one of the voting stations.
MCCers acting as monitoring supervisors in each of Haiti's ten departments report many of the same incidents, including many, many people unable to vote because their names were not listed on electoral rolls, as well as stealing and burning of ballots and cases of disruption and violence.
Although I'm frustrated by what I've seen and heard, it's hard to tell at this point whether all of the irregularities, incidents and, in some cases, outright fraud, will actually change the outcome of the elections. My impression is that the country is tensely awaiting the results, which should be announced within the week, to know how to react to what were clearly not free and fair elections.