Voters grapple with packed field for presidency

"There are so many candidates it's impossible to focus on it all and see if a few might actually have good ideas. Right now, this whole thing really gives me a headache,'' secretary Germithe Merzilus said with an exasperated sigh as a group of partisans walked by in matching T-shirts touting a campaign.

This troubled, poor Caribbean nation has at times been described as nearly ungovernable, yet a lot of people are lining up to try. The first round of Haiti's presidential vote on Oct. 25 features no less than 54 candidates — a fractured field that makes the 19 contenders in the election five years ago look almost reasonable.

They are seeking to succeed President Michel Martelly, who is barred by the constitution from serving a consecutive term.

The apparent front-runner is Jude Celestin, a former state construction chief who was the government-backed presidential candidate in 2010. Disputed preliminary results then showed Celestin edging out Martelly for a spot in the runoff ballot, but under international pressure Haiti's electoral authorities reviewed the count and eliminated him from the race.

Other major candidates include an ex-senator who has been Martelly's most vocal critic, a Port-au-Prince lawyer and public notary, a former police chief, and the leader of the political movement founded by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a once dominant but increasingly divided party that was barred from the last election.

Spoiler candidates could include an influential sitting senator and a businessman who has made a Haitian fortune building a chain of "borlettes," gaudily painted outlets that play on New York State Lottery numbers.

With so many candidates, no one is likely to get more than 50 percent of the vote Oct. 25, meaning the two leading vote getters will face each other in a runoff Dec. 27.

The jam-packed presidential field is just a small share of the horde of Haitian politicians holding rallies to whip up enthusiasm, sometimes with traditional bands of drums, horns and leather tambourines.

Because elections were postponed amid political gridlock during Martelly's nearly five-year tenure, this month's first-round presidential contest is taking place on the same day as legislative runoff elections arising from a messy vote in August that featured more than 1,500 candidates and nearly 130 parties.

Officials will also hold re-do elections in 25 districts where violence, ballot stuffing and voter intimidation plagued voting two months ago. The almost certain presidential runoff Dec. 27 will also see more legislative contests as well as voting for all local offices.

Vijonet Demero, secretary-general of Haiti's frequently criticized Provisional Electoral Council, predicts the Oct. 25 voting will be far better organized than the initial parliamentary round two months ago, the results of which were only recently issued.

"We have learned from the mistakes of August 9th and we've been busy making all the necessary administrative changes," Demero said at the well-guarded headquarters of the council overseeing the $69 million election process, with more than $30 million provided by the U.S.

A major change, he said, will be greatly limiting the number of political party representatives allowed to observe at polling stations in a bid to avoid voter intimidation.

Political analyst Fritz Dorvilier, a sociologist at the State University of Haiti, is skeptical.

Dorvilier says the council has displayed "incompetent management" from the start and gives some observers the impression it has a hidden agenda, a frequent charge against Haitian electoral officials. Last week, one of the council's nine members abruptly resigned, citing a lack of conviction in the process.

Haitian balloting is never easy and in some districts election day is more like a convulsion. Democracy is still relatively new in Haiti, which for most of its history has endured coups and civilian and military dictatorships. The country only saw its first freely elected leader with Aristide in 1990, and he was ousted by a military coup just eight months later and was driven from his second term by a rebellion.

The past decade has been relatively stable politically, with two presidents chosen by election. However, ballot stuffing, violence and fraud allegations continue. In a recent report, the World Bank said violent incidents in Haiti are "clustered around political events such as elections and transitions" and stability remains fragile.

Many analysts have serious concerns about disorder during the upcoming presidential vote, which is expected to have a far higher voter turnout than the 18 percent seen for the August parliamentary voting.

"In Haiti, foreboding is a permanent state of mind when it comes to elections," said Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group in Washington.

Still, Schneider and other analysts say these elections are critical for Haiti to advance as it continues an uneven recovery from the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas.

Haiti remains a very poor country and voters have no shortage of worries. The cost of living keeps going up while decent jobs remain scarce. The majority of Haitians live without electricity or sanitation and more than 6 million out of 10.4 million inhabitants have incomes under the national poverty line of $2.44 a day.

The candidates all say their main focus is bringing opportunities to more citizens, but Haitian politicians have been saying that for a long time.

"I want to see Haiti get better faster," Merzilus, the secretary, said while standing next to a sheet-metal fence plastered with posters for a half dozen candidates. "If the next president can deliver that, I think everyone will support them."