AFP: Haiti announces candidates for presidential vote run-off
by Clarens Renois
Haiti's fraud-tainted ruling party candidate was pulled from the presidential race on Thursday in a move widely welcomed as good for stability after months of deep political uncertainty.
The decision to reverse the results of disputed first round polls in November was met with calm on the streets of the quake-hit Caribbean nation, which has endured decades of political upheaval, dictatorship and bloodshed.
Announcing definitive results, the commission said popular singer Michel Martelly -- and not the ruling party's Jude Celestin -- would face off against former first lady Mirlande Manigat in a long-delayed run-off on March 20.
"This is a victory for the people," said Martelly. "We're here to tell the world that a new day has dawned on Haiti, one that brings hope and change."
The reversal came after international monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) found significant vote rigging and fraud in favor of Celestin.
The United States and the United Nations welcomed a decision they hope will clear the way for a more stable political climate and allow international aid efforts to be stepped up.
"After a year marked by the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010 and the ongoing cholera epidemic, it is of paramount importance for Haiti to have a new democratically elected government to continue to tackle the pressing issues of recovery, reconstruction and the fight against cholera," said a statement from UN spokesman Farhan Haq.
Haiti is still reeling from the earthquake that killed more than 220,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless, and has been battling a cholera epidemic that has sickened 200,000 people and killed more than 4,100 since November.
"It's a good day in Haiti again," the US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, told reporters.
The United States led international pressure on Haiti's leaders to accept the OAS findings, threatening to review aid if no credible government was installed.
Some observers, though, accuse Washington and others of interfering yet again in Haiti's internal affairs.
"It appears that the international community -- led by the United States, Canada, and France -- has used its tremendous power and influence to determine the outcome of the first round of the elections and the candidates for the run-off," said Democratic US congresswoman Maxine Waters.
"Once again, it appears that the international community is determining the political fate of Haiti."
Senator Joseph Lambert, national coordinator of the ruling INITE (Unity) party hinted at this, but accepted Celestin's departure.
"Despite the fact that we believe our candidate was in the best position to go into the second round, we accept to withdraw him from the race to avoid economic sanctions against Haiti and ease social tensions," he told AFP.
Thursday's announcement, which came after journalists waited through the night for the results, was greeted with joy by Martelly supporters.
"Martelly in the second round, there will be no more problems. Today he's in second place, but tomorrow he will be our president," added Kesnel Samedy, brandishing a picture of the candidate.
Manigat, a 70-year-old longtime opposition figure angling to become Haiti's first female president, was aware that she could not afford to underestimate her opponent due to his popularity with the country's many young voters.
It does not matter to them that he "has no skills, is new, is inexperienced in politics and everything. They will vote for Sweet Micky," Manigat said, using the singer's stage name.
Political tensions in Haiti were heightened by the sudden reappearance last month of former strongman president Jean-Claude Duvalier after two decades in exile.
Exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide is also mulling a return to his homeland after almost seven years in South Africa.
Preval is expected to extend his mandate, which is due expire February 7, through to May to give time for the protracted electoral process to play out.
Haitians should finally know their new leader when the result of the March run-off -- which itself was originally scheduled for mid-January -- is announced on April 16.