Haiti called off its presidential election on Friday, two days before it was due, over concerns of escalating violence sparked by the opposition candidate’s refusal to take part in a process he said was riddled with fraud.
Pierre Louis Opont, president of Haiti’s electoral council, said the runoff vote was being pushed back for security reasons. But he did not say when the election, already postponed twice before, would be rescheduled.
The announcement led to jubilation from demonstrators marching to oppose the election. They danced on the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince, but the mood quickly darkened. Gunshots were fired as protesters clashed with police.
The postponement is nevertheless expected to ease unrest after days of protests in the deeply impoverished country of about 10 million people, at pains to rebuild from a devastating earthquake six years ago and to emerge from decades of political dysfunction.
Several western nations, fearing a new era of instability in the Caribbean nation, have been assisting Haiti in its election preparations. The U.S. government alone has chipped in $30 million.
But opposition candidate Jude Celestin said last week he would not take part in the election, alleging a first round vote in October was rigged to favour the ruling party candidate.
“The fact that the electoral council was forced to give up the electoral farce is a victory for the Haitian people,” said Jean-Charles Moise, another opposition candidate who said fraud led to his first-round defeat.
Hamstrung with weak institutions, Haiti has struggled to build a stable democracy since the overthrow of the 1957-1986 dictatorship of the Duvalier family and ensuing military coups and election fraud.
The government held an unscheduled cabinet meeting to plan measures to “guarantee public order and the security of lives and property,” the prime minister’s office said in statement without giving details.
In a statement explaining the postponement, the election commission reported that seven election offices and an official’s home had been torched and several other offices were attacked, including by armed men.
On Friday, thousands marched in the capital for the third time this week. Police fired at a group attacking a man who appeared to have shot at them. The man lay bleeding profusely, but it was unclear how he was injured.
Protesters set fire to at least one car. Burning tires billowed black smoke directly below a giant poster of ruling party candidate Jovenel Moise. A man stabbed another poster of Moise with a metal pole.
Haiti’s newly appointed senators voted almost unanimously to postpone the vote earlier this week, and the Catholic church, business groups and local election observers warned an election under such conditions would not be credible.
In a statement from the United Nations, the “core group” of countries aiding Haiti that include Brazil, France and the United States among others, said they deplored the violence and reiterated “support for the conclusion of an inclusive and equitable electoral process.”
Formerly a singer known as Sweet Micky famous for performances on carnival floats, Martelly is constitutionally required to leave office by February 7, when the annual celebration starts this year.
However, his five-year term only ends in May, leaving some flexibility, with proposals including a March election.
The opposition groups want an interim government set up on February. 7 to oversee a new election.