The Past is Prologue with Haiti’s Elections

January 04, 2016

Jake Johnston
Telesur, December 31, 2015

View article at original source.

Haiti’s presidential runoff is slated for Jan. 17 after being postponed in December. The international community has often stunted Haiti’s democracy.

As Haitians prepared to go to the polls in 2010, 45 members of the U.S. Congress wrote to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, warning that supporting such a flawed process “will come back to haunt the international community.” Five years later, as Haiti finds itself embroiled in another electoral crisis, the lasting impact of the 2010 election is clear for all to see. Unfortunately, these powerful actors, who have interfered in Haiti’s politics throughout its brief democratic history, do not seem to have learned their lesson.

Haiti was not ready for an election in 2010. The elections took place less than a year after a devastating earthquake had killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than a million and just a month after a virulent cholera outbreak, introduced by U.N. soldiers, began its spread throughout the country. Furthermore, 14 legitimate political parties, including the popular Fanmi Lavalas party, were barred from participating in the elections without any real justification. But with billions in aid dollars on the table, the international community wanted new leadership in Haiti. Their investment could not be jeopardized.

The election was, as predicted, fatally flawed from the beginning, but rather than heeding to the warning from the U.S. Congress and from a myriad of actors in Haiti, the international community blindly marched forward. A U.S.-financed experts mission from the Organization of American States was sent to Haiti to evaluate the results. Without conducting a recount or using statistical analysis, it recommended changing the results of the election. Jude Célestin, then President René Préval’s handpicked successor was out, and a musician, more famous for parading on stage in a diaper than for his political positions, would advance to the runoff.

The intervention paved the way for current President Michel Martelly’s ascension to the presidency, and set Haiti on a disastrous path that five years later is culminating in an electoral crisis that threatens its democracy.

“First thing, after I establish my power … I would close that Congress thing,” Martelly is quoted as having said back in 1997. And that is exactly what has happened. In 2012, Martelly replaced elected mayors whose terms had expired with political appointees across the country. That same year, the terms of one-third of the Senate expired, making legislating increasingly difficult. In January 2015, the terms of the entire lower chamber and another third of the senate expired, rendering parliament dysfunctional and leaving Martelly to rule without legislative oversight.

With power consolidated at the top, the chances for a fair election were increasingly diminished. Nevertheless, the U.S. and many others in the international community stood by Martelly, blaming the brewing political crisis on a burgeoning opposition movement rather than on the undemocratic tendencies of its government partners.

A political deal to save the government and move the country toward elections was brokered through the behind-the-scenes diplomacy of the U.S. State Department. In August, when the first of three scheduled elections for 2015 took place, it was clear before the first vote was cast that the U.S. and international observers, still discredited by their role in the 2010 debacle, would simply check the box and move on. But the vote itself was disastrous. Nearly a quarter of all votes never even made it to the tabulation center to be counted as armed gangs shut down polling centers throughout the country. Ballot box stuffing, voter intimidation and disenfranchisement were rampant. Even Haiti’s electoral council singled out pro-Martelly parties as being primarily responsible. With millions of dollars invested in the process, the international community turned a blind eye and once again pushed forward.

During presidential elections in October, held alongside second-round legislative elections and local races, the violence was minimized, but the fraud simply moved elsewhere. The electoral council, long accused of partisanship, distributed more than 900,000 accreditation passes to political party monitors, called mandataires. Armed with these passes, monitors could vote wherever they were present, without being on the electoral list. With 128 parties and 54 presidential candidates, few of whom were serious contenders, Haiti was flooded with these passes, creating an illegal market for vote buying where those with the most money were best able to take advantage.

When results were announced, showing the previously unknown Martelly-backed candidate, Jovenel Moïse, in first place, protests once again erupted in Port-au-Prince and other major cities. Leading opposition candidates, including the second-place finisher, Jude Célestin — the man that the international community had kicked out of the 2010 race — questioned the results and demanded a verification of the vote. In the weeks since, those calls have been echoed by religious leaders, human rights organizations and groups throughout the Haitian diaspora.

As pressure for a review mounted, however, the international community — once again footing much of the electoral bill — made it clear this was a non-starter. Taking this stance, after having intervened so overtly in 2010, smacked of hypocrisy. A senior State Department diplomat was dispatched to Haiti to seek a resolution, namely by convincing Célestin to participate in the second round, thereby giving it a veneer of legitimacy. Fearing a delay in the electoral process would encroach on the end of Martelly’s mandate on February 7, and concerned about the potential of one of Haiti’s more left-wing candidates replacing Martelly’s successor in the runoff, the U.S. and its allies in the international community made it clear they would not support any comprehensive review. Instead, they recommended a commission to oversee the process and ensure the second round would be less flawed.

In December, Martelly issued a decree forming just such a commission. But it was quickly and widely denounced as being far too limited in scope and not truly independent. Two members seen as close to Martelly were replaced and there are now signs the commission is interested in performing a true audit of the October 25 presidential vote. It wants to study a 15 percent sample and have the ability to look at all related documents. The commission had until December 30 to issue its report, but given the scope of their inquiry, it’s clear it will take much longer. Unfortunately, roadblocks are already emerging; the government and its allies in the international community seem to be undercutting the commission before it’s even concluded its work, attempting to keep the lid shut on Pandora’s box.

The electoral council is restricting the commission’s access at the tabulation center and questioning the statistical sample. Meanwhile, both the U.S. Ambassador and the State Department’s top Haiti official have taken to the Haitian press, prejudging the outcome of the yet-to-be-completed report and urging the second round, originally scheduled for December 27 and currently postponed indefinitely, to be scheduled as soon as possible. The officials have discounted the allegations of fraud and stated flatly that the top two finishers should be unchanged.

The commission is a last ditch effort to save the electoral process and provide much needed credibility and transparency, but if it’s not allowed to take its time and act with true independence, it stands no chance at succeeding. Even if given room to operate though, the commission has already be denounced by many sectors of civil society for only focusing on the October presidential vote thereby sanctioning the flawed August election. These actors are advocating for the entire process to be redone.

The consequences of pushing forward with an illegitimate election are there for all to see. Doing so in 2010 is what has pushed Haiti into the current situation. Doing so again now will only push Haiti further down the path of illegitimate governance. Haiti is still rebuilding from the devastating earthquake in 2010 and billions more dollars will be spent, but without a legitimate and functional government, those funds will likely be squandered — as much of the billions already spent have been.

Stability over democracy has been the priority of the international community in Haiti for too long. Haiti’s is a young democracy, but its growth has been almost continuously stunted by international interference. If the international community is serious about “building back better” as donors pledged five years ago, they should start by supporting truly free, fair and democratic elections and not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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.

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