By Henry (Chip) Carey
Haiti breathed a collective sigh of relief when President Michel Martelly made good on his promise to leave power by Feb. 7 and agreed to let the legislature choose a new provisional government. This plan may vaguely be in the “spirit of the constitution,” but it depends heavily on the good faith and mutual trust of Haiti’s polarized political class. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the massive electoral fraud in the August and October 2015 elections, which produced the violent confrontations, that trust is practically nonexistent.
Martelly’s admirable departure from power still leaves Haiti unstable due to security threats and electoral challenges. Martelly and his supporters strenuously oppose any investigation into last year’s electoral rigging, as the forces under the former president’s control were partly culpable. Additionally, Martelly’s paramilitary supporters have continued to intimidate, including a Feb. 5 armed entry into Port-au-Prince that resulted in at least one death. One of Martelly’s advisors, Roro Nelson, is widely believed to have organized political violence against the staff of elected opposition leaders.
Martelly’s paramilitary supporters have not disappeared, nor are they being brought to justice. As Robert Fatton of the University of Virginia has noted, “No one knows who was in charge of these people. Everyone assumes they are in fact armed people and armed by the Michel Martelly regime, otherwise they would not be so free to go to the streets.” The threat of political violence and a possible coup hang over the head of the transition government tasked with navigating the country through the next few months. Should the paramilitaries become unhappy with the interim government or its supervision of new elections, they may respond with violence.
In the first round of presidential and legislative elections, an independent commission concluded that 92 percent of tally sheets from each voting precinct contained “grave irregularities,” such as missing signatures or incorrect voter identification numbers. Sixty percent of the 1.5 million votes were cast by voters with poll monitoring accreditation, which allowed them to vote outside their home precincts. Protests over these more-than-credible allegations of fraud and massive irregularities narrowly avoided exploding into all-out violence, and even so, dozens died over the course of several weeks.
On March 9, Martelly’s PHTK party held a protest in Port-au-Prince. Most of the signs said that Jovenel Moise, Martelly’s hand-picked presidential candidate and desired successor, should be included in the presidential runoff—even if his placement in the top two candidates after the second round of voting was fraudulent. The PHTK rally enjoyed a protective police escort, in sharp contrast to the hostility from police to which opposition protests are usually subjected. One of the police trucks was filled with officers from a special section of the police that has been credibly accused of brutality.
The transition agreement mediated by the Organization of American States is fraught with risks of further polarization and violence. The main opposition candidate, Jude Célestin, refused to participate in the negotiations for new elections while Martelly was president. His recalcitrance stemmed from the fraud in the first round of elections and from the lack of necessary reform to ensure that the final round would be free and fair. Célestin has so far refused to participate in elections tentatively scheduled for April until a new electoral council has been fully appointed and has proven its neutrality and competence. The council in charge during the first round of elections was loyal to Martelly forces. Whether Haiti will erupt in violence will depend on whether the interim government and interim President Jocelerme Privert will appoint unbiased and competent electoral officials.
Subsequent reforms to the electoral law should not be promulgated by presidential decree, as has occurred too often in recent decades. On the other hand, Haiti’s fractious legislature could easily take weeks or months to enact them. The legislature has been stalemated without a functioning majority for the past four years, partly because Martelly refused to hold local elections during that time. The institution has not functioned over one-third of the time since 1987, when Haiti’s constitution was enacted. If the provisional president chooses instead to rule by decree, politicians on both sides of the political divide will cry foul, making further violence and delays to the transition inevitable.
The widespread protests should have prompted the United Nations, the OAS, the U.S., and other interested parties to call publicly for changes to the electoral system. Instead, at the moment, the international community remains more committed to funding elections in April than to conditioning their finance on meaningful reform. Given the weakness of Haiti’s political parties, the U.S., Canada, France, and other foreign embassies, along with U.N. peacekeepers, should conduct the vote count. They should also join the OAS in providing technical assistance to the new electoral council. Too often, the international community does not want bad news publicized, such as bribes for qualifying candidates. Unfortunately, as effective as the U.N. can be at detecting fraud, it is also fully capable of shutting its mouth about irregularities. When Martelly’s representatives committed electoral fraud in 2015, not a peep came out of the international community about the magouille (fraud).
Following the agreement for a transitional government and new elections scheduled for May, the first responses from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. embassy were that all parties should either join the electoral process or be branded as anti-democratic—regardless of whether the conditions for democratic elections were present or not. Given Haiti’s long track record of slow and corrupt electoral administration, it is impossible for credible elections to be held by May. At a minimum, the credentials for election observers have to be reissued to a limited number of people. The voter registration must be enforced rigorously. Most importantly, the provisional government and congress must enact detailed electoral reforms and appoint a competent, neutral electoral commission.
It took a previous transitional government two years, from 2004 to 2006, to hold the elections that eventually brought René Préval to the presidency. This time, neither the opposition nor Martelly’s ruling party will wait that long for an election. It is not rocket science to hold credible elections, but the international community’s indulgence of fraud so often in the past leads to expectations that history will repeat itself.
Haitians have not abandoned their dreams of democracy, but these dreams are difficult to achieve in reality. On top of the electoral turmoil, Haiti is now in its worst food crisis since 2001, which makes the Haitian public more anxious and, for some, more likely to engage in violence. Riots over food will only add to the troubles of those who have long tired of rigged elections and thwarted democratization.
Henry (Chip) Carey is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.
[Photo courtesty of Ricardo Patiño]