Haiti’s Election Debacle

Expectations heading into Haiti’s elections on November 28 were modest at best. The country’s notoriously opaque Conseil Électoral Provisoire (CEP) once again excluded the country’s most influential political party, Fanmi Lavalas, from participating in elections, as well as a number of other parties and individual candidates. Procedurally, the devastation from January’s earthquake and the ongoing cholera epidemic seriously complicated efforts to register voters and establish an adequate number of polling stations. While many in Haiti and abroad had held out hope that it would still be possible for the election to proceed in an orderly and peaceful manner, such expectations were unfortunately dashed by widespread reports of voter confusion, violence, and fraud.

Reactions to the elections varied: some groups claimed that the balloting was valid despite reports of irregularities, while others decried the entire process as fraudulent and illegitimate. International observation groups were faced with several undesirable alternatives as they assessed the elections, and their official conclusion turned out to be a highly controversial compromise between practical and ethical concerns.

In the days leading up to Haiti’s elections, the instability of the country’s democratic process became tragically apparent. An attack on the delegation of INITE party members (the political vehicle of Haiti’s outgoing President René Préval) and its presidential candidate Jude Célestin resulted in the deaths of two Haitians, allegedly at the hands of supporters of opposition candidate Charles Henry Baker.1 Later, another person was killed in an apparent assassination attempt on Michel Martelly, who, at the time, was polling third behind Mirlande Manigat and Célestin.2

The situation deteriorated further on the day of the election. According to a statement by the OAS, a number of polls opened late, and centers designed to help citizens locate balloting sites were inundated with calls from Haitians unable to find locations to cast their ballots. The voting centers themselves were typically crowded and disorganized, and proper voting procedures often seemed to fall by the wayside.

The OAS also reported incidences of coercion and violence intended to influence the elections.3 According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s election analyst, Paul Hunter, fraud was rampant on election day: “We saw ballot stuffing. We heard voters who were intimidated into voting for a candidate. And we saw thugs, gangs of thugs, going into polling stations, grabbing stacks of ballots, marking them with the candidate of their choice.”4 Hunter maintained that Célestin was the primary beneficiary of the misconduct, an assessment repeated by Manigat.5 However, Célestin’s INITE party was also the victim in some instances, such as in the northern city of Desdunes, where an election monitor from the party was taken hostage.6

On the day of the elections, 12 candidates released a statement decrying the election as “a massive fraud.” Célestin was the only credible contender not to endorse the statement, further fueling speculation about INITE’s role in the corruption surrounding the election. Interestingly, Manigat and Martelly began backpedaling a short time later, and Manigat insisted that she had never authorized the statement in the first place. The real political motives behind such a reversal were hardly disguised; allegations of fraud had not (and have not) been factually discredited, and there is no other explanation for this sudden change of position. More likely, Manigat and Martelly altered their stance because they believed they had a significant chance of winning a position in the next round. Indeed, it has been rumored that they have finished first and second in the polling, though official results have not yet been released.7 Such political maneuvers are not unexpected, yet they do somewhat undermine both candidates’ insistence that the elections be free and fair.

A number of independent observers have been quite critical of Manigat and Martelly’s decision to reverse their previous condemnation of the fraudulent electoral process simply because the results may work in their favor. Ezili Danto, president of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network, has denounced the candidates for placing “their personal ambitions ahead of the people’s good, ahead of decency and the law.”8

International organizations also have drawn well deserved criticism for their response to the election. Despite acknowledging fraud and widespread irregularities, most international bodies defied their own documentation by insisting that the elections were valid. The OAS maintained that the elections were legitimate, and according to Colin Granderson, head of the OAS/CARICOM Joint Election Observation Mission, the charges of electoral fraud by presidential candidates were “precipitous, hasty and regrettable.”9 Granderson’s “see no evil” approach astonished only a handful because, when it comes to Haiti, he has recently been an apologist for the status quo. Indeed, given the context, his statements seem to border on denial. During the election, Edmond Mulet, the chief of the UN mission in Haiti, went as far as to say, “[i]n general everything is going well, everything is peaceful.”10 Mulet referred to the violent confrontations in Desdunes as “minor incidents.” Furthermore, according to both the CEP and the OAS, “only” 4 percent of polling stations were disrupted,11 a statistic which they seem to dismiss as insignificant. However, the votes cast in “disrupted” polling stations could swing the vote by as much as eight points, quite a significant margin in a contest with 19 candidates splitting the vote. Also, considering the institutions providing the statistics had an interest in ensuring the elections were seen as legitimate, it would not be surprising if the percentage of affected polling stations was, in fact, far higher.

From an entirely empirical vantage point, the international community’s assertion that the elections were legitimate seems untenable. As BBC correspondent Mark Doyle notes, “[i]t is difficult, objectively, to square the long list of serious irregularities with the breezy OAS/Caricom conclusion. In other countries, if observers had noted just one of the failures on this list – still less all of them – there would probably have been outpourings of condemnation.”

In light of the clear information available, why did international organizations draw conclusions that seemingly flew in the face of the facts? The answer probably lies in the primary goal assigned to the elections – the achievement of political stability. After the January earthquake, international organizations were eager to set a date for elections. Préval’s term was scheduled to end in 2010, and the possibilities of an extra-constitutional term extension were he to stay in office or a power vacuum were he to leave office were both seen as potentially destabilizing. Thus determined to hold the scheduled elections and uphold their legitimacy, the international community seemed prepared to overlook serious issues in the name of preserving stability. As the elections unfolded, the strategy backfired as obvious large-scale fraud made such claims of legitimacy difficult to defend.

While international organizations must be held accountable for validating fraudulent elections, it is difficult to conceive of viable alternative responses that the international community could have pursued. Had international organizations invalidated and canceled the elections, the country would have either remained under the leadership of the INITE party (an unacceptable solution considering the strength of current opposition movements) or continued to function without a democratically-elected leader. The international community could have invalidated the process and postponed elections; however, the ruling government was both unwilling and unable to quickly enact reforms to prevent fraud, and there would have been no way to guarantee that the postponed elections would turn out any fairer than the original ones. Furthermore, political upheaval could have occurred had results differed significantly between the two elections. In this scenario, different candidates could claim to have won equally unfair elections, and conflicting claims to the presidency would no doubt have considerably increased the potential for violence.

It might be argued that, in light of the alternatives, the path chosen by the international community seems logical from a strictly pragmatic point of view. At a minimum, it is likely that at least one popular opposition candidate would make the run-off election, which should placate the strong anti-government movement in the country. Official results are scheduled to be released on December 7 and, barring a highly improbable outcome, such as an outright win for Célestin, the results are likely to be tolerated. At the moment, it seems that the international community has elected to look past fundamental democratic deficiencies in order to advance its objective of short-term stability. Understandably, this is a bitter pill to swallow for a number of disillusioned Haitian voters.

The decision of international organizations to validate the elections appears to be based purely on pragmatic concerns, to the detriment of more ethical ones. The international community overlooked many requirements for truly democratic elections, and many of their optimistic appraisals of the elections, such as those previously cited by Mulet, are highly unwarranted, if not outright dishonest. International organizations will certainly continue to be accurately criticized for these failures, and they must be held accountable for their decisions. However, there is still room for much legitimate debate about the appropriateness of the international community’s response to a situation in which there was no ideal solution.

While there were seemingly no ideal options for international organizations following the elections, there were certainly many missed opportunities before the elections. In the months and years prior to the contest, the international community failed to address—and was sometimes even complicit in—the systemic deficiencies of Haiti’s electoral process. International organizations helped establish the CEP in its current form, and they have failed to demand accountability and transparency from the organization. They have also turned a blind eye to political repression and, in doing so, unwittingly helped to legitimize fraudulent institutions. These past failures, coupled with endemic poverty and corruption, are among the principle causes of the fraudulent electoral processes on November 28. Indeed, the predicament in which international organizations now find themselves with respect to Haiti is largely of their own making. In order to prevent a similar debacle in the future, the international community must recognize and address these issues, but unfortunately, it has given no indication that it will finally face the problems it helped create.

References for this article are available here

Leave a Reply