Haiti Election Hangs in the Balance as Political Negotiations Continue

January 22, 2016

Haiti’s government, opposition leaders and private sector groups were in negotiations late Wednesday night, seeking an end to the impasse over Haiti’s coming presidential runoff. On the table is a deal that would delay this Sunday’s elections until March and provide assurances on how to move forward.  But speaking on local radio Thursday morning, current president Michel Martelly, who is constitutionally barred from running again, said everything was ready for the election Sunday and criticized groups who he said wanted to seize power by delaying elections.   

Less than 72 hours before polls are scheduled to open, it remains unclear if elections will take place or if a deal to re-schedule them can still be reached. Opposition parties have threatened to boycott the vote, alleging government interference and massive fraud in the October first round.

On the line now is not just the next president of Haiti, but how and if president Martelly will leave office and whether he will peacefully transfer power to his successor. Also at stake is the credibility of the international community that has backed the process with diplomatic support and millions of dollars.

An international official closely involved in the electoral process, who requested anonymity, said that moving forward with elections on January 24th would “ignore all improvements and lessons we have learnt … and will undermine once again the legitimacy of the president elect.” “More to the point, it is going to look bad for the international community.”

Yesterday the Haitian senate passed a non-binding resolution calling for the electoral process to be halted immediately. Senator Evalière Beauplan, who authored the resolution, told the Miami Herald that there was a broad recognition that “elections won’t work on Sunday. The actors are not ready, and there is too much turbulence.”

The move followed days of protests against the election.  A regular occurrence since the beginning of the electoral process in August, they have increased in size and intensity in the run up to the vote. Police have dispersed protesters with tear gas and a video showing officers beating and harassing detainees has been widely shared on social media.  Opposition groups have called for more protests in the coming days and denounced the police brutality. But in its address this morning, the government said protests would not be allowed ahead of Sunday’s election.

Amid the political crisis, the Haitian government announced the beginning of this year’s Carnival celebration: February 7, the date Martelly’s term ends.

In an ironic twist, a majority of the current Senators, who voted against the election, were themselves elected in violence and fraud-marred legislative elections in August. The elections, in which nearly a quarter of all ballots were never counted due to violence and other irregularities, set off the current crisis.

Martelly, who failed to organize elections during his first four years in office, was left to rule without legislative oversight following the expiration of parliament’s terms in January 2015. A few years earlier, thousands of local officials were replaced by political appointees. A political agreement, brokered with behind-the-scenes help from the U.S., led to the scheduling of three elections in 2015, offering the chance to reestablish institutional legitimacy.

Official results of October’s presidential election put Jovenel Moïse , of the ruling party in first place, followed by Jude Célestin. But the results were immediately contested. The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) distributed more than 900,000 accreditation passes to political party observers, allowing them to vote wherever they were present and in many cases, enabling them to vote multiple times.

With 128 political parties competing in the elections, many with no resources to deploy thousands of observers, the system for monitoring the vote turned into a black market for vote buying, according to local observers. With only 1.6 million votes cast, these observers accounted for “probably half the people who voted,” according to Rosny Desroches, who leads a U.S.-financed local observation group. “Those who would do that are those with money…they could see beforehand how to use them,” he added in an interview at the time.

While local observer groups documented what they said amounted to “massive fraud,” international observers, led by the Organization of American States (OAS) backed the results.

After pressure from opposition groups and street protests, president Martelly announced the formation of a commission to evaluate the results just days before the originally scheduled runoff on December 27. The report, delivered in early January, found that there were indeed “grave irregularities” that were “akin to fraud.” 92 percent of a sample of tally sheets of votes contained at least one “serious irregularity,” while more than 50 percent contained three or more, they found.

The commission’s report recommended sweeping changes to the electoral apparatus, including replacing certain members of the CEP, replacing and retraining poll workers and looking further into the irregularities that plagued the vote. The authors’ concluded: “A President of the Republic and other elected officials issued from elections tarnished by major irregularities would further aggravate the political crisis and instability of the country.”

The commission said that the CEP had lost the needed credibility to run elections. Célestin is calling for the commission’s recommendations to be implemented before participating in any election.

Still, the government of Haiti and the CEP have pushed forward. Just days after the commission’s report was delivered, before any recommendations could be adopted, Martelly issued an executive decree establishing January 24 for the presidential runoff. The CEP had written to the president just days before, saying that it would be impossible to hold elections in time for a constitutional hand-over of power on February 7, but foreign embassies, including the U.S., pushed for the 24th.

Two of the nine members of the CEP have since resigned while another suspended his activities due to corruption allegations. A fourth member has ceased participating in meetings because he opposed the holding of the January 24 elections.

The winds appear to be shifting in Haiti’s ever changing political atmosphere. The influential Chamber of Commerce and Industries of Haiti, which includes many businessmen considered close to the government, came out against having the elections on the 24th. The group echoed calls from civil society, human rights groups, religious leaders and diaspora organizations calling for changes to be made in line with the evaluation commission’s report.

There are also growing signs of discontent within the international community. The OAS, one of the primary backers of moving forward with the election as recently as last week, issued a statement expressing concern about pushing forward without further dialogue. The statement acknowledged serious problems in the earlier elections and that measures taken to fix the system “have not achieved the intended level of confidence” desired.

The U.S., however, has maintained its support for Sunday’s elections and according to multiple sources, has been in close contact with the Haitian government, urging that the elections be held as scheduled. The U.S. has spent more than $30 million on the process so far. At least three members of Congress have written to Secretary of State Kerry urging support for free and fair elections and expressing concern over the vote.

The issue threatens to creep into the U.S. presidential race, given the close connection of Hillary Clinton to the current electoral impasse. In the 2010 elections, when Clinton was Secretary of State, Martelly was originally left out of the presidential runoff. Protests engulfed the capital and other major cities and after pressure from the U.S. and other actors, the Haitian government allowed a mission of foreign experts to analyze and eventually overturn the results. OAS whistleblower Ricardo Seitenfus, denouncing the behind the scenes machinations, termed it a “silent coup.”

The man kicked out of the race was Célestin. “Martelly owes his presidency to Hillary Clinton’s personal intervention in elections five years ago,” said Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press Haiti correspondent at the time and the author of a book about post-earthquake international assistance. “The State Department has been backing him enthusiastically ever since.”

The main sticking point in negotiations, according to those close to each side, is what happens to Martelly after February 7. A proposal from the private sector and Catholic Church, floated last night, would have provided for a consensus Prime Minister to be named and oversee the government before elections in March. Martelly, however, is seeking to extend his term until a new president is named.

The government also wants assurances from Célestin that he will participate in March. Those assurances would also guarantee there is no change to the candidates participating in the runoff, meaning a further investigation into the October vote and the potential for sanctions would be off the table.

Martelly warned this morning that international partners would not accept a transitional government. “The country will be under embargo,” he cautioned. But in an interview last November, former Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive warned that pushing forward would carry its own risks. “If there is no legitimacy, there will be no stability, and without stability there will be no investment,” he said.  

All major local observer groups have pulled out of Sunday’s election, including Desroches’ group, OCID. That group received both training and financing from the U.S. and Canada, who are backing the process. “If the elections take place the results will be rejected and not credible,” the international official said.

Either way, it remains to be seen if any move can restore Haitian’s trust in the political system. More than 70 percent of registered voters stayed home in October.

“Even if the standoff over the presidential race is resolved,” said Nikolas Barry-Shaw, Voting Rights Associate with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. “Haiti’s next government will still suffer from a serious deficit of democratic legitimacy, given how many parliamentarians got their seats through violence, fraud or bribery.”

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