Haiti: President Préval Seeks an Electoral Amendment

• Préval strives to strengthen country’s democratic institutions, but Aristide Factor still unresolved

• Another Presidential Term for Aristide?

One can understand why Haiti’s President René Préval is so tirelessly pressing for a constitutional amendment whereby an incumbent president could immediately run for reelection, rather than having to wait at least one term. But the new arrangement could be fraught with danger. Not all Latin American democratic institutions are sufficiently durable to withstand the buffeting emanating from strongmen with authoritarian aspirations.

A long presidency tends to provide such a strongman with the time and space to evolve a personalistic system in the spirit of 19th century continuismo that incorporates political powerhouse tactics, as well as pushing for vested interests. Democratic societies of uncertain virtue may be best served by a process that relies upon rotation in office and other buffering processes which discourage the sprouting of permanent roots and the special arrangements that guard against venality, which can be improved over time. Single-term presidency provides less time for self-serving accommodations to be made, thus discouraging graft and opportunities for other forms of corruption.

A year into his second term as Haiti’s president, René Préval, like so many of his regional counterparts, raised the issue of amending his country’s constitution in order to reinvent the traditional term limits concerning the chief executive. The issue arises against a background of human rights violations, continuing gang violence in Haiti’s urban areas, a poorly trained and equipped national police force, and concerns about the effectiveness of foreign troops supposedly bringing order to the country.

Préval —A Good Man, but Effective?

President Préval was elected for his second and what will be his final term in 2006, with just barely enough votes to secure the majority he needed without resorting to a runoff election. His victory was achieved only as a result of enraged pro-Préval protesters taking to the streets after having eagerly watched early election reports, showing Préval to be in the lead, only to see the tide of votes begin to ebb, which inspired violent protests on his behalf.

Witnesses report that one protester was shot and killed by U.N. peacekeepers, according to an Associated Press report of February 13, 2006. The allegation was summarily denied by the Brazil-led force. Before further violence could erupt, René Préval stepped in to control the situation. In Kathi Klarreich’s article, “The Fight for Haiti,” Professor Robert Maguire of Trinity University is quoted as stating that Préval, “spoke clearly and directly to the people, and asked them not to back off, but to protect their interest, and people listened. It was quite a change of pattern from what we’ve seen in Haitian leadership previously.” When Préval requested that the people protest peacefully rather than damaging private property and unduly disrupting the city, they obeyed. The trust that the protesters showed in Préval indicates that the quality of his leadership was not only invaluable, but it was also appreciated by the masses.

Reactions to Préval’s Election

A major concern over Haiti’s balloting process was the habit of many voters to refrain from filling in their ballot, casting a blank one instead. In this way, their voice is recorded as not wishing to vote for any of the candidates standing for office. The percentage necessary to win without a runoff election, according to International Herald Tribune’s February 15, 2006 article entitled “Haiti to Investigate Fraud Allegations,” is “50 percent plus one vote.” In order to reach the percent necessary to avoid requiring a runoff election, a formula was devised whereby the method of counting these blank ballots was revised. Blank ballots were proportionally assigned to each candidate. The reasoning used to justify this jiggling of the voting process was that Haiti’s political atmosphere was becoming too violent, and it was better to have a definite winner than a drawn-out decision-making process, which would only further agitate Haiti’s already volatile population.

At a gathering celebrating his electoral success, Ginger Thompson of The New York Times writes that Préval resorted to very few words; instead he allowed three of his representatives—one dark-skinned and the other two younger, well-dressed, and of lighter complexions—to speak on his behalf. The choice of all three supporters is relevant because of the island’s history of racism that dates back to the colonial period and Préval’s desire to project the notion of fusion in racial matters. Though the white masters held plenary power during the colonial period, this was soon to change. The resulting mulatto class, the product of miscegenation between the African slave class and white upper-class, was given special privileges. After Haiti gained independence, and slavery was abolished, the mulattos—in many respects—replaced the whites as the nation’s leadership class.
After the aforementioned presentation at Préval’s victory party, he embraced the two younger men, saying, “You see, everyone, I am going to reconcile Haiti.” His actions were intended to symbolize that there was to be no animosity between his presidency and the mulatto elite of Haiti. Having the backing of the country’s elite would be a wise maneuver, as many revolts and coups in Haiti’s past were influenced, if not instigated by that group. Rather than immediately speaking out about policies he wants to implement in his final term, Préval has tried to build a broad coalition of support before articulating a comprehensive program. Some fault him for this; since he has been reluctant up to this point to make hard public choices that would further define his presidency. But Préval has not wasted much rhetoric on former President Jean Bertrand Aristide, his erstwhile intimate and political mentor, who has not been a subject of much attention by his successor. What Préval has to beware of is that unless the language is carefully phrased and not modified by Aristide’s backers in the legislature, it could leave the door open to allowing the former Haitian leader with the opportunity to serve another term, since both of his first two terms were interrupted by coups.

The United Nations in Haiti

One area in which Préval has been preoccupied is the country’s deeply troubled human rights observance. Currently, the UN initiative called MINUSTAH is providing a military security focus aimed at supporting the Préval government. The United Nations has dispatched troops, Civilian Police, and civilian staff, under various missions to Haiti over the past fifteen years. Under UN Resolution 1542, the military and other personnel to be deployed to Haiti included: 6,700 troops and 1,622 police officers. The main focus of the current deployment has been the quelling of gang warfare, mainly in urban areas. Earlier, avatars of such gangs stood for the return of President Aristide and to provide a policing capacity to the trouble-filled Brazilian-led efforts to provide effective protection to the island. According to an earlier COHA press briefing (“Botched Job: The UN and Haiti’s Elections”) by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Associate Sabrina Starke, as recently as February of 2006, the Brazil-led UN stabilizing force was incapable of providing a secure and safe voting environment. “Fears of poll violence…[and]… political repression have turned the ballot into a caricature of the real thing.” Earlier, the U.S. force provided the U.S.–imposed government of interim Prime Minister Gerard La Tortue with the means to carry out his lawless and capricious rule. La Tortue has just been appointed as the UN “facilitator” in the African country of Guinea, as an apparent reward for his scandalously inappropriate stint in Haiti. Despite allegations by witnesses that the Brazil-led UN peacekeepers killed one protester in 2006, overall, the performance and results of the international force has been positive.

Critics claim that before an effective system of law can come to the country, first the ill-trained Haitian National Police must be professionalized to be more effective against the gangs. Moreover, those who have criticized the policy of first defeating the gangs and then training the Haitian National Police may be missing another possible menace to the country. If not constantly hounded by the police, the gangs—which include many members of the disbanded military—could better organize themselves to take back more of the country, rather than just their relatively limited districts in the cities, which they now tend to dominate.
If the Haitian National Police needed to be trained before taking on the gangs, then the international community should have been prepared to commit more troops: some to keep order and additional cadres for training purposes. In the 2006 Human Rights Watch report, Haiti is listed as the most corrupt state of the 163 countries which participated in the survey. Police-fomented corruption and gangs comprised of ex-military personnel make both urban and rural life almost untenable for the average Haitian. In the cities, kidnapping occurs with grim frequency and the police routinely turn to excessive force and all-too-often engage in extrajudicial killings to cover up their own venality. The number of kidnappings recently has begun to decrease and the police slowly seem to be winning their war against the gangs with the help of still-controversial MINUSTAH, though the UN Security Council maintains that “the security situation remains fragile.”

Increasing Presidential Influence

Into this chaotic scene, Préval calls for a constitutional amendment which would permit a president to serve for two consecutive terms, instead of non-consecutively, as currently required under the country’s constitution. In effect, at present there must be at least five years between each non-consecutive term. Préval’s proposition to amend Haiti’s constitution is potentially dangerous, depending upon the intent of those leaders who will be coming after him, since he is not scheduled to benefit at all from the new arrangement.

Even if the consecutive term limit is not increased, an opportunistic leader could try again to use the change in procedures to his or her personal benefit. Préval has declared himself ineligible to benefit from this provision, but with international assistance in the form of economic aid, loans, and a likely restructuring of Haiti’s policing system, the possibility of a dangerously integrated central government increases, given Haiti’s riotous history. The Associated Press ran an article entitled “Haiti’s Préval Seeks to Amend Term Limit,” which stressed that “Préval urged lawmakers to work with him to overhaul the document, which he [Préval] called the single greatest threat to Haiti’s long-term stability.” Though Préval’s statement is accurate in that new reforms may not have the opportunity to come to fruition before an opposition leader will try to block the measure, the opposite may be equally true. “Long-term stability” is not always synonymous with “assurance of safety for citizens individually.” In his “Political and Economic History of Haiti,” Thayer Watkins conjectures that some of the most stable governments throughout Haiti’s history were also the deadliest for Haitian civilians. These included the rule of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who presided over Haiti until 1971, after winning a ‘free and fair’ election in 1957. Approximately 30,000 Haitians were later killed under his rule for resisting his reign. (http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/haiti.htm)

Préval’s attempts to revamp the policing system thus far largely have met with failure, and the danger of increasing the consecutive term limit is that an ambitious leader who comes up through the ranks of the police and is able to garner their undying trust, could lead the country into a relapse headed by a Duvalier-like dictator. Additionally, concerns could be raised that Préval’s pending amendment is not entirely in keeping with either the letter or the spirit of the constitution. In Article 284-4 of Haiti’s 1987 Constitution, it is written that “No Amendment to the Constitution may affect the democratic and republican nature of the State.” An amendment like the one Préval proposes could lead to another Duvalier-type leader seizing power, a development which undoubtedly compromises Article 284-4.

For these reasons, Préval’s amendment seems not to be an exclusively selfless act of defending the country from itself, but instead could pose a significant and potentially hazardous alteration of the status quo, which may be later abused by a leader who does not possess the same democratic bona fides as Préval. Given the long history of human rights violations during periods of rule by a “president-for-life,” or by external military rule, Haitian politicians could now best be focusing on making Haiti a safer and more prosperous place to live. This would take the place of worrying about how long an incumbent might have to put their policies into effect. If a leader’s policies are appreciated by the Haitian public, such beneficial policies should be continued as the result of popular demand, rather than as a result of violence.