After months of tension, rumors, and wrangling over Haiti's disputed election results, Haitian election officials announced on Thursday that President René Préval's hand-picked candidate, Jude Celestin, won't head to a presidential runoff on March 20. Instead, pop singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly will face former first lady Mirlande Manigat in the country's first presidential runoff in 25 years.
The announcement ended intense speculation over how the Haitian government would handle international calls for Martelly to replace Celestin on the ballot after widespread fraud tainted the Nov. 28 elections. Outraged Martelly supporters protested in riots and demonstrations that shut down Port-au-Prince for three days in November. The capital city remained mostly calm after this week's announcement, despite fears of a reprise of last year's unrest.
But plenty of problems remain: President Préval is constitutionally required to leave office on Feb. 7, though the Haitian Senate passed a bill last year that would allow him to remain in office until May. Most expect Préval to stay, though rumors swirled that large-scale demonstrations on Monday will protest an extended term.
Beyond the immediate crisis lies an even thornier question: Can election officials effectively prepare for a presidential runoff in six weeks? Scores of Haitians complained in November that massively disorganized-and errant-voter lists prevented them from voting in the original contest. Martelly and Manigat called for reform of the electoral council ahead of the March runoffs, but officials remained quiet about plans for improvements. If Haitian voters face similar problems in March, the country could face another round of unrest and uncertainty over the rightful president.
Meanwhile, it's unclear what either candidate plans to do for the crisis-ridden country. Martelly, a political novice popular with many younger voters, has called for "a new Haiti," but has offered few details for a comprehensive plan. Manigat has remained mostly low profile as she waited to learn which candidate would be her runoff opponent.
Either candidate would face overwhelming obstacles, including a parliament and prime minister that may prove uncooperative, and soaring expectations that may be hard to meet: Haitians hope a new president could unravel the chaos that has taken years to create.
Celestin's opponents say that breaking from the current government is a right step in a new direction. During my recent travels in Port-au-Prince, the candidate's billboards and posters plastered the rubble-laden city, but many Haitians openly wondered if Celestin understood what Haiti needs.
One Haitian pointed to a billboard of a smiling Celestin in front of a broad road through a clean countryside. "I don't know where he was standing," the Haitian laughed. "But it wasn't Haiti."