PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Last-minute political intrigue matched the ruckus outside Haiti’s election headquarters Saturday as candidate registration for the post-earthquake presidential race rollicked to a close.
The biggest shake-up came inside President Rene Preval’s Unity party, which revealed it is not backing former Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis after all. Instead it threw its support behind Jude Celestin, head of the government’s primary construction firm.
Alexis showed up at the quake-damaged election headquarters anyway and registered with a different party – the Mobilization for Haitian Progress, run by a former presidential hopeful from Miami with family ties to former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
At least 58 parties are registered for the Nov. 28 first-round vote to choose a successor to Preval, who is barred from seeking re-election. Voters will also select legislators and local officials.
The best known presidential candidate is multimillionaire singer Wyclef Jean, who returned to his New Jersey home Friday after registering as the candidate for the Viv Ansanm party.
As Jean and others did all week, presidential hopefuls streamed to the elections office Saturday in gleaming motorcades while supporters danced to music and pressed against police barricades in largely choreographed displays.
After long sessions of watching their candidacy documents signed and witnessed, the candidates emerged to scrums of shoving Haitian reporters to make their case for leading the wounded nation.
“There are many candidates on the ballot, but the people know there is only one: It’s Claire Lydie Parent,” said Claire Lydie Parent, mayor of the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville.
Among other aspirants who appeared were Yvon Neptune, the last prime minister under ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and Leslie Voltaire, the current government's master planner for reconstruction.
Alexis had no comment about Unity’s change of heart. He twice served as prime minister under Preval, most recently until he was ousted in 2008 as senators blamed him for widespread riots over rising food prices.
“I know Haiti's problems very well. I also know the solutions to solve these problems,” Alexis told reporters.
The chairman of Preval’s Unity party, Sen. Joseph Lambert, would not comment on the reasons behind the decision to drop support for Alexis.
“This morning we decided we're not going to send Alexis, we’re going to send Jude Celestin,” Lambert told The Associated Press. “Alexis has a right to run in any party he wants.”
The support of Preval’s party is expected to be a factor in a contentious presidential race. For one, the eight members of the provisional electoral council who will determine which candidates are qualified for the ballot were all approved for their positions by Preval.
Candidates must meet seven constitutional requirements: Be a native of Haiti, be at least 35 years old, have never renounced their citizenship, have never been sentenced for a crime, own property and a “habitual residence” in Haiti, not currently be handling public funds and have resided in the country for at least five consecutive years before election day.
Celestin, the Unity Party’s candidate, heads the government-run Centre National des Equipments, whose dump trucks and front-loaders hauled away tens of thousands of bodies after the Jan. 12 quake and are contracted to cart away millions of cubic feet of rubble. The road-building company can also expect a lot of business as billions in aid money flows in for reconstruction.
Haiti’s next president is slated to oversee the spending of nearly $10 billion in reconstruction aid promised at a March U.N. donors conference – though less than 10 percent has actually been delivered so far.
Associated Press Writer Evens Sanon and AP Television reporters Pierre Richard Luxama and Flora Charner contributed to this report.