Haiti's Flawed Elections: They Told Us So

Voices from across the political spectrum in both Haiti and the United States, joined by human rights groups, and most importantly, Haitian voters—have warned both Haitian and U.S. government that the deeply flawed elections in Haiti currently scheduled for November 28 risk putting the country into turmoil and endangering our investment in reconstruction. But both the U.S. and Haitian Administrations refuse to listen.

This month’s elections may be the most important in Haitian history. Voters will choose the entire House of Deputies for four years, a President for five years, and one-third of the Senate for six years. These officials will have the responsibility of guiding Haiti’s reconstruction for at least four years, which will require making many hard, important decisions that will shape Haitian society for decades.

The legislative elections will happen without 15 political parties, including Haiti’s most popular party, Fanmi Lavalas. Fifteen Presidential candidates were also rejected, and some parties, including Fanmi Lavalas, refused to even register a Presidential candidate because of the election’s flaws. Fanmi Lavalas’ participation is particularly important because the party is by far Haiti’s most popular. It has won every election it has contested, including 90 percent of the seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections. But every party that fulfills the requirements of Haiti’s Constitution and the Electoral Law should be allowed to participate.

Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) has never issued a comprehensive explanation for the exclusions. The exclusion of singer Wyclef Jean appeared justified- the Constitution has a five-year residency requirement in Haiti, while many accounts have Mr. Jean living in New Jersey. But Mr. Jean claims that he did, in fact, file documents proving his residency, and without a public explanation of the CEP decision, it is hard to dismiss his claims.

In the case of Fanmi Lavalas, the CEP provided a series of informal explanations, all regarding a mandate sent by the party’s exiled leader, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from South Africa last November. In fact, Fanmi Lavalas presented an original mandate, authenticated by a Haitian notary that complies with Haitian law. President Aristide sent a fax of the mandate directly to the PEC, and confirmed its authenticity in a radio interview.

The CEP not only lacks a good reason for excluding many candidates and parties, it also lacks the constitutional legitimacy to do so. The Council is a Provisional Council hand-picked by Haiti’s President, René Préval, not the independent Permanent Council required by Haiti’s 1987 Constitution.

Last month, 45 members of the U.S. Congress, most of them Democrats -- including Representatives Delahunt, Lynch, and Olver from Massachusetts – wrote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, warning her that supporting flawed elections “will come back to haunt the international community” by generating unrest and threatening the implementation of earthquake reconstruction projects. In July, Republican Senator Richard Lugar was even more direct, warning that “[the] absence of demo­c­ra­t­i­cally elected suc­ces­sors could poten­tially plunge the coun­try into chaos.” In September, over 2 dozen US-based human rights, religious, development and solidarity organizations urged Secretary Clinton to withhold all aid until a new CEP had been formed and demonstrated a commitment to fair elections.

Haitians are fight­ing the unfair elec­tions in the streets, in the press, and at polit­i­cal meet­ings. Polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions from across the spec­trum — many of whom have agreed on lit­tle else for decades – have con­demned the CEP’s exclu­sions. Haitian voters have seen enough electoral charades to recognize one when they see it, and interest in the elections is as low as the elections’ stakes are high.

The last CEP – with most of the same members as the current one -- disqualified Fanmi Lavalas and other parties from Senate elections held in April and June 2009. When the disqualifications were first announced, the United States, the U.N. and the OAS denounced them as undemocratic. The U.S. Embassy warned that the exclusion would ``inevitably’’ raise questions about the election’s credibility. But the CEP called the international community’s bluff and kept the excluded parties out. The international community blinked by not only accepting the flawed elections, but paying for them, too: international donors supplied $12.5 million, 72 percent of the election’s cost. Haitian voters, knowing a fraud when they see one, boycotted. The CEP’s official participation rate of 11 percent for the April elections was low enough, but most observers put the real figure at three to five percent.

The next Haitian government will need to ask its citizens to make sacrifices in order to implement the reconstruction plans. People will have to relocate their homes and businesses, go without water, government services, even food and tolerate many inconveniences as the damaged cities are taken down and rebuilt in new ways. A government can obtain these kinds of sacrifices in two ways: it can develop trust, or it can use force. A government elected by a small fraction of the voters who could chose only parties approved by the outgoing government will be hard-pressed to develop trust. We may have seen the future as Hurricane Tomas was approaching Haiti, and residents of the Corail-Cesselesse displacement camp refused an evacuation order, even though they knew the camp risked deadly flooding and landslides, because they did not trust the government’s promises that they could return after the storm.

If the new Haitian government cannot induce trust, it will have to obtain its citizens’ cooperation through force. Forcing large numbers of people (there are 1.3 million homeless, for example) to do anything is difficult; forcing people who have nothing to lose and have already suffered as much as they can bear, with a small and inexperienced police force, will be next to impossible. Trying to apply this force risks the chaos that Sen. Lugar warned of.

Neither the Haitian nor United States governments appear willing to heed any of these warnings. The United States is sending $15 million to support the elections, while the State Department dodges questions about the elections’ flaws at press conferences. The Haitian government has closed any discussion of allowing excluded candidates, while the government’s candidates run an apparently well-financed campaign – there seem to be more posters for President Préval’s INITE coalition than all other parties combined in Port-au-Prince.

President John F. Kennedy warned that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” The Haitian and United States Administrations seem bent on putting this maxim to the test, despite the risks. Haitian voters have tried to communicate their opposition to exclusionary elections in many ways: boycotting the 2009 votes, demonstrating in the streets, rejecting the elections in the press and in political meetings. They will keep trying until they find a way that their government, and ours, will listen to.

Brian Concannon Jr. served as an OAS election observer and U.N. human rights officer in Haiti and currently directs the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.