Election crisis brings us to a dangerous crossroads

Haiti’s President, Michel Martelly, is reaching a crossroads with his relationship with Haitians at home and in the diaspora, as well as with the United States government. As the evidence of fraud and other irregularities in Haiti’s elections mount, Haitians are taking to the streets, the airwaves, the pulpit and the internet to insist on the elections that Haitian voters deserve. The United States government has nevertheless continued to support President Martelly, but it cannot forever ignore the hard truths of problems with the elections and Haitians’ outrage.

President Martelly’s term ends next February 7, and Haiti’s Constitution prohibits his re-election. The singer-turned-politician is trying to hold on to power anyway by manipulating a three-part series of elections this year for almost every elected office in the country.

According to the official results, the plan is working so far. The government’s parties and its allies claim close to a majority in Parliament, and Mr. Martelly’s anointed successor, Jovenel Moise, was credited with 34% of the vote and first place in the first round presidential voting. A runoff between Mr. Moise and second-place candidate Jude Celestin is scheduled for December 27.

The first voting of the series— legislative elections on August 9— was marred by disappearing votes and widespread violence largely committed by government supporters. Violence forced the closure of 13 percent of voting centers, and 23 percent of local tally sheets never made it to the national count. The October 25 first-round Presidential elections and legislative runoffs were less violent, but more fraudulent. In both elections, over 70 percent of voters did not vote, either intimidated, excluded or discouraged.

The problems with the elections have been well documented from the start, by Haitian and international media, election observation missions, and political parties not allied with the government. Sixty members of Congress noted their concerns about first-round problems in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, including Massachusetts Representatives Bill Keating, Katherine Clark, Stephen Lynch, and Jim McGovern, as well as Mia Love, a Haitian-American Representative from Utah.

But recently the evidence of malfeasance has mounted to almost absurd levels. An exit poll published November 19 indicated that Mr. Moise really came in fourth, not first, with 6 percent of the vote, not 34 percent. On November 24, officials announced that an audit of a sample of 78 tally sheets showed fraud or irregularities in all 78. The Electoral Council did discard the 78 sheets, but refused further investigation.

As the evidence of fraud mounts, so does anger and frustration in Haiti. The country’s Catholic Bishops issued an unusually strong denunciation of the fraud, echoing earlier statements by human rights groups and Protestant pastors. Pro-democracy activists have taken to the streets in increasingly frequent and large demonstrations, shutting down major cities. The police have responded with arrests, rubber bullets and even live ammunition fired at peaceful protestors, while regime supporters attacked protesters with rocks and machetes.

Although the Haitian diaspora in the U.S. has had a range of opinions about President Martelly throughout his term, there appears to be an emerging consensus that he has now gone too far. Best-selling writer Edwidge Danticat, one of the most prominent Haitian-Americans, published a scathing critique of Martelly’s elections and U.S. support for them in The New Yorker magazine. Protests were organized in New York and Miami when Jovenel Moise visited there in November.

On December 8, a coalition of Haitian-American organizations, including the Haiti Renewal Alliance (HRA), the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce (HACCOF), the National Alliance for the Advancement of Haitian Professionals (NAAHP), Konbit for Haiti, Congress to Fortify Haiti and the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians issue a statement insisting that all the votes need to be counted in the presence of independent observers.

In Haiti, the attacks against protestors has not deterred those calling for fair elections. In fact it has hardened their stance. In November, most critics called for an investigation, but the continued fraud and attacks have convinced many actors, including the largest opposition parties, that the government cannot be trusted to run fair elections. They now insist on substantial, immediate changes to election and police officials or a transitional government before any more voting.

The United States has been President Martelly’s most generous financial and diplomatic supporter throughout his term. The State Department, which has investing $33 million in these elections, has dismissed complaints of Martelly’s manipulating—including the loss of 23% of the August votes--as not important. The Department asserts that the process must move forward in order to provide the stability Haiti needs for economic development.

Secretary of State John Kerry did travel to Haiti in October for an audience with President Martelly, reportedly to deliver a private warning against further misconduct. But that warning was evidently ignored, with no evident consequences to U.S support for the regime.

President John Kennedy famously warned that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Haitians are trying their best to make peaceful revolution, first by voting, and when they were unable to do that fairly, by protesting the violation of their voting rights on the streets and in the media. By ignoring these calls and pushing ahead with a fraudulent and violent “election,” President Martelly is leaving Haitians with few options besides disruptive civil unrest that could plague the country until the next Presidential elections in 2020.

President Martelly is also leaving the Obama Administration with a hard choice. It can continue to stand up for its friend and risk the civil unrest, or it can use its influence with the Martelly Administration to help reach a peaceful, democratic solution to the crisis. As the protests and repressive response to protests spiral upward, the time to change course is quickly running out.

Human Rights Lawyer Brian Concannon Jr. is Executive Director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.IJDH.org, and a former Organization of American States Election Observer in Haiti.