VICE News, September 6, 2015
On August 9, in the impoverished Cité Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, a man in plainclothes carrying an automatic weapon casually got into a crowded SUV and left the premises one of Haiti’s largest voting centers. It wasn’t yet noon on election day. Inside the center’s gate, three Haitian National Police officers sat in the shade. All 51 voting booths had been destroyed. Thousands of ballots littered the courtyard.
All across the country, the vote was held amid a climate of chaos and tension. In Chansolme, in Haiti’s rural northwest, a polling place supervisor was forced to hide under a bed for hours after being threatened by armed bandits who needed his signature to officially endorse completed ballots that they had provided. In Nippes, another supervisor was held at gunpoint and forced to sign a document canceling the election for an entire voting center. In the commune of Desdunes in the Artibonite, all five voting centers were shut down by midday.
Nationwide, turnout was estimated at 18 percent. In Haiti’s most populous West department, where President Michel Martelly’s approval rating is the lowest, that number fell to less than 10 percent of registered voters going to the polls. The final results of the first round of legislative elections will be announced on September 8, but protests have been held across the country denouncing what was seen as an unfair process. There have been calls for changes within the electoral council, and, in some cases, the outright annulment of the election.
In January, Haiti was left without a functioning government when the terms of the entire lower house and one-third of the Senate expired. Another third of the Senate had already termed out previously in 2012. Without a functioning government, Martelly was left to rule by decree. He was constitutionally barred from running again for president this year.
Altogether, 128 parties registered to participate in the August election, with 1,621 candidates competing for 119 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 232 fighting for 20 seats in the Senate. Playing out across Haiti’s 10 departments, it was the first election under Martelly, who came into office only after the international community intervened in the 2010 election.
For the international community, once again the primary funders of the electoral process, the first round was seen largely as a test of the key presidential and second-round elections scheduled to be held in October.
Local and international observers have offered drastically differing accounts of what occurred on election day. The Organization of American States (OAS), while acknowledging incidents of violence, proclaimed just a day after the vote that those issues “did not affect the overall voting process.” The UN, US, Canada, and the European Union have all added their stamps of approval. For them, the act of simply holding elections signaled success.
On the other hand, a local observation mission led by a network of human rights organizations (RNDDH), which had more than 15 times the number of observers as the OAS and the EU, denounced the process as an assault on democracy. They cited fraud, irregularities, and violence in 50 percent of voting centers across the country.
“Be wary of anyone saying that everything went well,” the group warned.
The Provisional Electoral Council, or CEP — the nine-member institution responsible for organizing and carrying out elections — originally said only 4 percent of polling centers had been closed on election day, but when preliminary results were announced 11 days after the vote, they acknowledged the problems were worse than originally proclaimed. Elections will be re-held in 25 areas most impacted by irregularities. Across the country, nearly a quarter of all votes were never counted.
Most political parties have pointed the blame at Martelly’s political party, PHTK, as well as others close to the government. The CEP has reacted by excluding 16 candidates from continuing in the electoral process for their role in electoral violence; five are from PHTK. On August 24, the CEP issued a broader warning, calling out political parties whose candidates and supporters were involved in violence, suggesting they could face sanctions. Eight departments were listed; the two parties involved in the most incidents were PHTK and Bouclier, which was founded by a close advisor to the president. Overall, 16 different parties were cited.
But the warning from the CEP offered another message: Parties performed extremely well in those departments where they were warned for violent actions. In Haitian elections, violence appears to pay off.
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On the Saturday before the election, it was clear that problems would begin early in the voting. Just 12 hours before polls opened, the electoral council said that due to technical problems they would only be able to print a fraction of the passes needed for political party observers.
After the election, the local group led by RNDDH noted that some parties had difficulty obtaining accreditations, while those “favored by electoral officials” had received theirs.
On Sunday, in the Don Bosco polling center in Cité Soleil, with more than 15,000 registered voters, a group of officers from the Randevous party, a relatively small party running just 17 candidates for the lower house, milled about in the courtyard. Only officers from PHTK and Bouclier were allowed in, they were saying. “They have the money and the means to get the accreditation,” one explained. “This came from the top.” Party officers inside could not say what party they represented without first looking at their accreditation document. None mentioned either PHTK or Bouclier.
‘As the days pass, we’re beginning to realize it’s a larger mess than we first thought.’
“There was an army of them,” an international observation mission official, who asked not to be identified since the process is ongoing, told VICE News, adding that in some centers the ratio of officers to voters was as high as four to one. “For parties, it’s a way to defend themselves, but also a way to intimidate.”
Every crisis needs its scapegoat. Explaining the lack of accreditations, the CEP announced on the night of the election that an employee, Joseph Hébert Lucien, had made off with sensitive documents in an attempt to sabotage the process. Lucien shot back on local radio, saying he left the night before the elections because he had been receiving threats from political parties and welcoming an investigation into what happened.
“From my experience working with him, he was simply overwhelmed,” a foreign diplomat who requested anonymity said in an interview. Still, it deflected criticism from the CEP and the United Nations Development Progamme (UNDP), which oversaw the election budget. Both groups have come under increasing scrutiny as the lack of preparation became clear. While the Haitian justice system is notoriously slow to act, the next day there was a press conference announcing a warrant for Lucien’s arrest.
Still, the foreign diplomat, who’s been in country working almost exclusively on elections for two years in one of the largest foreign embassies in Haiti, remained optimistic. “Some parties had an organized strategy to take advantage of it, but the problem is still fixable,” he told VICE News. The CEP has pledged to have all the accreditation passes for the next round available 15 days in advance, but after overselling its hand before the first round, the CEP has already lost the trust of many throughout Haiti.
To anyone watching the run-up to the elections, it should have come as no surprise that election day itself was plagued by widespread irregularities. In its preliminary report, the EU observation mission noted that PHTK had “undoubtedly dominated the electoral scene,” adding that 38 percent of election commercials were for PHTK.
Though the Haitian government committed about $10 million for political parties, those funds weren’t released until just a week before the vote, leaving little time to run an actual campaign. While smaller parties waited, PHTK and Martelly were canvassing the country.
“We didn’t use any state resources,” Roudy Choute, a PHTK party representative, told VICE News. “The only thing we have is the president, and I’ll keep using him.” Both Choute and another PHTK insider, who requested anonymity, denied that PHTK had more funds than other parties. But the insider added, “What money does come, comes from the government, I’m not going to hide that.”
PHTK and Bouclier are also the two parties most staunchly defending the results. In an interview in the party’s headquarters, presidential candidate Steeve Khawly of Bouclier indicated that since international observers had said the results were acceptable, they should stand. “Elections happened on Sunday like the CEP said they would happen,” he added. Khawly denied any connection with PHTK.
In a press conference the day after the vote, PHTK called the elections acceptable and denounced a “smear campaign” by its opponents. “Elections were good enough to move on,” Choute later said. He blamed the opposition for intimidating potential voters to not go to the polls. “They forgot this is a democracy, even if there are three votes, the one with two goes on. You can’t cancel the vote,” he added.
While few outright winners were declared in the preliminary results, PHTK appears to be the main beneficiary of the election. The party has 42 candidates moving on in the 94 deputy races that will stand, four of whom will be declared the winner in the first round. The party also leads the field with eight Senate candidates moving on to the second round. Together with Bouclier, the two will have candidates advancing to the second round or winning outright in the majority of deputy races that were validated by the CEP.
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“The elections won’t be perfect, but it’ll be better than 2010,” a high-level foreign official involved in the process said the day before the election. The first of three scheduled elections this year, the vote held on August 9 cost at least $25 million — in addition to the $10 million the Haitian government distributed to political parties — and was years in the making.
In 2010, after initially being left out of the second round, Martelly supporters took to the streets, shutting down Haiti’s capital. A mission from the OAS (also observing the current electoral process) came to Haiti and arbitrarily overturned the results, thrusting Martelly into the second round, and eventually the presidency. This time, even the head of the EU observation mission felt it necessary to give an interview to Haiti’s leading newspaper,Le Nouvelliste,saying the mission would not interfere with the results of the election.
“The international community has their own agenda, they see that the money was wasted [in the election], but they want to do what is good for Martelly,” a high-level official in Vérité, a newly created party associated with former President René Preval, explained. It was Preval’s handpicked successor, Jude Célestin, who was removed by the international community in 2010 to allow Martelly into the runoff. “It’s 2010 all over again, but instead of against Preval, it’s for Martelly,” he added.
The widespread knowledge that the international community would put their stamp of approval on the process, no matter how flawed, opened the door to the irregularities that plagued election day. “The sense is it was a ‘check and move on,’ but now we’re realizing there are serious challenges on the horizon,” the diplomat added.
Over lunch at an upscale restaurant in Port-au-Prince’s wealthy Petionville neighborhood, Jocelerme Privert, one of 10 remaining senators and a former minister of the interior, explained that in order to get back to work he “needs elections.” But, he added, “I need fair elections, I need good legislators.” A $25 million test of the election system is one thing, but when that test results in the election of both houses of parliament, the impact on Haitian democracy is massive. “How this crisis is managed will determine the success of the next round. But the process is essential to the future of the country,” Privert added.
The diplomat acknowledged that they had not done nearly enough to vet candidates, as it was difficult to assess all 1,800 of them. “This is not a glorious roster of candidates,” he said. Unfortunately, with election day marred by extremely low turnout, irregularities and fraud, it is naturally the “violent and corrupted” who will benefit, as one candidate explained. As the electoral process continues, the legitimacy of Haiti’s next legislature hangs in the balance.
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“As the days pass, we’re beginning to realize it’s a larger mess than we first thought. How will the government, CEP and international community get out of it?” the Vérité official posited during an interview. “The hope is that the CEP manages to explain carefully and transparently how its decisions are made,” the observation official added.
But the results posted by the CEP and the brief press conference on August 20 have failed to assuage the many doubts. Elections will be re-run in 25 towns where less than 70 percent of tally sheets were counted, either due to fraud, irregularities, or the fact that they simply never made it to the tabulation center. The senate race in Haiti’s second most populous department, the Artibonite, will also have to be re-run. The CEP, however, failed to explain the criteria for dismissing votes and there is no indication of whether the 70 percent threshold was based on any sort of statistical analysis.
Many towns and even entire departments will see the election results validated despite having just over 70 percent of the votes counted. Nationally, more than 23 percent of tally sheets were missing or excluded.
On August 27, 12 political parties wrote to the head of the CEP, Pierre Louis Opont, accusing the organization of favoring those close to the government, refusing to recognize the results posted by the CEP, and calling for his resignation.
“The credibility of the process and the honesty of the CEP will be tested,” Privert said. Parties are now going through the results and filing complaints with the CEP. More than 200 complaints have been filed.
Privert added that documenting abuses on election day and being able to follow up on them largely depends on local officials, who in many cases are directly appointed by the Haitian government, making contesting the results difficult. Of course, it does help to be a sitting senator: In his home town in the Nippes department, where a group threatened a poll supervisor with a gun to his head, the PHTK candidate who was allegedly behind the violent actions has been excluded from continuing in the election. But without that benefit, there is no action one can take against decisions of the CEP. “It is a state within the state,” the senator said.
The transparency, and the perceived fairness of how that unaccountable “state within a state” responds to these serious problems and deficiencies will determine if Haiti’s electoral process continues with all parties still at the table, or if these elections will end up being another travesty in Haiti’s ongoing struggle for democracy and national sovereignty.
Jake Johnston is a Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington D.C. He is the lead author for CEPR’s Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog and has authored papers on Haiti concerning the ongoing cholera epidemic, aid accountability and transparency and the U.S. foreign aid system. His articles have been published in outlets such as The Hill, AlterNet, Truthout, and the Caribbean Journal.