By Jacqueline Charles
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (MCT) — Even before being deemed qualified to run, presidential hopefuls in impoverished Haiti faced a hefty bill: a $12,500 nonrefundable filing fee.
Now they are finding that the amount will only get steeper as campaign season begins to sizzle this month.
With 19 candidates vying for one of the toughest and least compensated top jobs in the hemisphere — it pays just $6,000 per month — the presidential race is likely to be one of the most expensive in Haitian history for candidates.
A serious candidate will need $10 million to $20 million if they want to get their message out, said Frantz Charlot, the owner of a visual advertising firm in Petionville, who is designing $300,000 billboard packages for candidates.
"Since the campaign is so tight, and so many of the candidates are fighting for the same voters, the candidates that can hammer their message the most will eventually prevail," Charlot said.
In the 2006 presidential race, which saw Haitian President Rene Preval beat out 34 other candidates, experts speculated that a candidate needed between $3 million and $6 million to mount a strong challenge.
Political analysts say the $10 million to $20 million that top candidates will spend is still less than what most presidential candidates spend in the hemisphere.
The costs to the Haitian government and donors to hold the Nov. 28 election is estimated at $29 million. The government will fund $7 million with the rest coming from the international community.
Experts said the presidential and legislative elections could very well be the economic stimulus quake-ravaged Haitians have been awaiting since the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake left an estimated 300,000 dead and wiped-out jobs. The campaigns are expected to hire tens of thousands of Haitians.
"It’s like a cash transfer to the population, a sort of cash-for-work program," said Leslie Voltaire, a former government minister who plans to hire 10,000 Election Day monitors and a helicopter to get around Haiti’s mountainous terrain.
Even Voltaire, who estimates he will need between $6 million and $8 million and who spent three days in South Florida recently stumping for diaspora cash, said costs are "outrageous."
"But you have people willing to subsidize it," he said.
Most everyone agrees that while presidential candidates will get some money from local business leaders, it is unknown just how much, given the number of strong contenders among the candidates on the ballot.
Among them: two-time former Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, considered the front-runner, until President Rene Preval picked former government construction company head Jude Celestin as his political platform’s choice.
Then there is Voltaire, the Cornell-educated urban planner involved in reconstruction planning; Jean-Henry Ceant, a powerful notary who is reportedly receiving support both from followers of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the very middle class that forced him from office; former first lady and university professor Mirlande Manigat; and businessman Charles Henri Baker. Baker, who lost to Preval in 2006, received an average of $50,000 from 400 supporters mostly in the business community then.
But that tiny business community is now a shadow of its already frail financial self, which has some wondering how much it will be able to contribute. Also unknown is how much the government will officially contribute to the campaigns.
Haiti was already expensive before the quake punched a hole in the economy and government coffers. Now it’s even more so as demand outpaces supply, and the price of everything from SUVs to banners to T-shirts has skyrocketed.
A recently prepared barebones budget for minimal visibility by one campaign showed that after the $1,000 full-page ad in a local newspaper, $3,000 30-second prime time radio spot, $32.50/dozen T-shirts and .20 cent/poster, costs already totaled $1 million. And the amount didn’t even include rental cars or purchases.
Vehicles are hard to come by as Preval’s INITE (UNITY) camp recently discovered after trying to rent a fleet of 100 vehicles for the 107 candidates the platform is pushing.
With rentals unavailable, the campaign turned to a Ford dealer for a purchase price. That estimate: $2.7 million before taxes and shipping.
"They wanted the vehicles as soon as possible. We said it would take 60 days. They said that’s not fast enough," said Kevin Martin, operations manager in Haiti for RMA, a worldwide dealer of new Ford SUVs and trucks.
Martin said not only are cars hard to come by in Haiti, but prices also have gone up considerably. A small Ford SUV that sold for $30,000 before the quake is now $40,000. And rentals, if they are available, have gone from $150-a-day to as much as $250-a-day, he said.
But transportation is not the only major cost if candidates want a shot at winning, said Sen. Joseph Lambert, INITE’s national coordinator and former president of the Haitian Senate, who noted that the campaign plans to hire 30,000 election day monitors at $20 a person. There is the cost of providing electricity and food at campaign rallies, now scheduled to begin in mid-October.
"The people are hungry. You can’t just invite them to come to a meeting and not feed them," he said. "This is extremely expensive."
Lambert said INITE plans to fund its candidates by raising money in the private sector but declined to say how much the campaign will cost. He did say that he and other senators will be watching closely to ensure that ministries’ funds are not used to fund opponents’ bid, a common practice.
Steven Benoit, a former deputy running for the Senate, says the lack of a functioning parliament will make it difficult to monitor illegal spending, including "suspicions" that Preval’s recent decision to draw down $107 million from PetroCaribe funds for roads will end up funding his candidates.
"I am convinced this money will be used in elections to buy votes," he said.
Haiti’s Minister of Finance Ronald Baudin did not return calls seeking comment. In the past, government agencies have been known to be used as "black boxes" to pay for campaign expenses, a practice that is forbidden and illegal, but rarely flagged.
Given the number of former government officials among the candidates, divided loyalties even within Preval’s fissured coalition and intense scrutiny by the international community over aid dollars, it remains unclear if anyone will receive public funds other than what the government officially provides.
That raises another concern: the use of drug-trafficking profits, kidnapping ransom dollars and other ill-gotten money in the bid to get candidates elected, including by vote-buying and instigating political unrest.
"It is always a concern, organized crime and drug traffickers who take advantage of this in terms of having an influence over the politicians," said Mark Schneider, a Haiti expert with the Washington-based International Crisis Group. "Limits on spending would be in the interest of good governance, clean elections and recognized need for a greater degree of transparency."
Haiti’s electoral law does require candidates to report campaign contributions and sets a ceiling of $50,000 to a candidate, political party or platform. Also, all contributions of more than $2,500 must be reported to the Provisional Electoral Council within 30 days, with penalties for noncompliance.
But in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean, where nations recently met in Jamaica on election financing, experts say electoral bodies lack the capacity to monitor election financing.
The costs, said Schneider, is just one more example of why Haiti needs to fix its electoral calendar that currently calls for senatorial elections every two years.
"There needs to be a rationalization of elections in Haiti, so you don’t have multiple elections on a continuing basis, every two years," he said. "The country simply can’t afford it. It would be better if this money is being spent on housing, shelter, food and health care."
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