Haiti's election crisis: How did we get to this point?

As this Sunday’s elections approach, Haiti is in the throes of a full-blown political crisis. Many Haitians are in open revolt against the electoral process, while the credibility of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) is in shambles and the legitimacy of the new parliament is in doubt. Second-place presidential candidate Jude Célestin has refused to campaign and is boycotting the runoff vote set for January 24, leaving government-backed candidate Jovenel Moise without an opponent going into the second round. The Martelly government and the CEP, however, have declared that the final round of elections will go forward, with or without Célestin.

The intransigence of the Martelly administration is due in large part to the unflinching support it has received from the U.S. government and its international allies. Echoing Haitian government statements, American diplomats in Haiti have repeatedly dismissed concerns about fraud and pressed for the electoral cycle to be completed. The State Department has provided $30 million in funding for the elections so far, and its envoys have played a key role in coordinating the international response to the electoral crisis.

Led by the United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States have enthusiastically and publicly endorsed the holding of elections on January 24 and called on both candidates to participate.

The U.S. and its allies in the “Core Group” countries (Brazil, Canada, France, Spain) have maintained this stance despite an Evaluation Commission report released on January 3, which found widespread evidence of fraud and serious irregularities during the first round presidential election of October 25. In fact, foreign embassies pushed for the January 24 date even though the electoral council had said just days before that it would not allow enough time to prepare.

The heavy involvement of the U.S. and its allies in the elections has drawn the ire of many Haitians. Demonstrators have held sit-ins in front of the U.S. embassy and taken up slogans such as “Aba Obama” and “Blan pa ladan.” Célestin has denounced “interference by the international community,” while the political opposition has appealed to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that foreign diplomats “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.” “These are election for a certain part of the international community,” Célestin told journalists, “elections for the government to assure the dictatorial succession.”

Haitians in the U.S. have also spoken out against the role of the U.S. in Haiti’s elections. On Tuesday, 43 Haitian-American organizations, 34 political, religious and community leaders, and 66 other individuals wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry criticizing “the unhelpful role the State Department has been playing in Haiti’s election crisis” and calling for a change of U.S. policy. U.S. tax dollars spent on the presidential, legislative and municipal elections held on August 9 and October 25 had produced “a fraudulent outcome, which disrespects the very idea of democracy and has led to the current impasse.”

The letter warned Secretary Kerry that going forward with the presidential runoff scheduled for January 24 “is a recipe for further upheaval and unrest.” “Pushing forward heedlessly with elections on January 24 will only deepen Haiti's political crisis,” said City of North Miami Vice-Mayor Alix Desulme, one of the endorsers of the letter. “The country does not need another round of debilitating instability, it needs a legitimate government issued from fair and credible elections.”

Instead, the letter urged Secretary Kerry to support an independent, Haitian-led investigation, as demanded by Haitian religious leaders and civil society, as well as the editors of the Miami Herald and the New York Times. The letter also called on the U.S. to support the recommendations of a recently-appointed Evaluation Commission, which called for major changes to Haiti’s electoral council and the establishment of a political dialogue among the relevant political actors.

Meeting these “minimum conditions” for restoring faith in the electoral process must be made the top priority of U.S. policy in Haiti, the letter states, even if this means postponing the election or briefly appointing a transitional government. “All too often, the U.S. has been eager to sacrifice democratic principles for the sake of an elusive ‘stability’,” said Pierre Imbert, former Director of the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants and an endorser of the letter. “We’re asking Secretary Kerry not to make this mistake again.” Imbert is currently the Senior Advisor on Haiti for the Barr Foundation.

Among the 43 endorsing organizations, which come from diverse areas including 14 different states, are the National Alliance for the Advancement of Haitian Professionals (NAAHP), the Alliance of Haitian Professionals (AHP), the Haitian American Lawyers Association of New York (HALA-NY), and the Haitian American Lawyers Association of New Jersey (HALA-NJ). Massachusets-based organizations and individuals that endorsed the letter include Democracy for Haiti, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, Rev. Dieufort Jean Fleurissaint, Luckner Bayas, and Pierre Imbert.

This is not the first time members of the Haitian diaspora in the U.S. have spoken out on Haiti’s electoral crisis. On December 2, a coalition of Haitian-American organizations issued a statement backing calls for an independent investigation, and on December 23, Haitian-American activists organized a Congressional call-in day asking the U.S government to stop supporting Haiti’s violent and corrupt elections. In November, best-selling Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat published a scathing critique of Martelly’s elections and U.S. support for them in The New Yorker magazine.

Some members of Congress have begun to respond to their constituents’ appeals. On January 19, Katherine Clark (D-MA) issued a letter of her own to Secretary Kerry, urging a change of course. Clark called on the U.S. and its allies in the Core Group to “make every effort to see that the ultimate outcome of any electoral process is Haitian-led, and is meaningfully reflective of Haitian popular will.” Describing Célestin’s boycott of the second round as “most disturbing,” Clark worried that “the Presidential runoff, if allowed to proceed without the confidence of the electorate, will result in further instability and suffering for the Haitian people.”

"Many of my Haitian-American constituents and their families are deeply concerned about fraud in Haiti's electoral process,” wrote Clark. Congressional representatives Frederica Wilson (D-FL) and Alcee Hastings (D-FL) have also addressed letters to Secretary Kerry calling for free and fair elections in Haiti, prompted by appeals from their constituents.

Even if the U.S. were to maintain its position in favour of January 24, Martelly may yet be forced to desist and seek a compromise. Angry protests rocked the capital on Monday and Tuesday, leading to violent clashes between police and demonstrators. Under a cloud of corruption allegations, two CEP members have resigned and another has withdrawn temporarily. Dissident member Jaccéus Joseph, meanwhile, has refused to help with the organization of the January 24 elections and a prominent coalition of Haitian election monitors have likewise declared that they will not observe “this pre-programmed ‘consultation’ that the CEP is trying to pass off as elections.” Even Haiti’s Chamber of Commerce has joined the chorus of voices calling for the postponement of the January 24 elections.

It is difficult to predict what will happen next, but in private, even the foreign powers are aware of the gravity of the situation. One diplomat anonymously confided to journalist Amélie Baron that an “immense crisis” will result with the election of “a president and a government that will have only very weak credibility, and will thus be contested in the streets.”

The author is a Voting Rights Associate at the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti
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