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Haiti Stumbles Toward Second Round of Flawed Elections

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By Peter Costantini - Seattle

Over two months after the first round of balloting November 28 in Haiti's turbulent presidential elections, the Conseil Électoral Provisoire (Provisional Electoral Council) published results February 3 showing former first lady Mirlande Manigat and pop star Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly advancing to a runoff election scheduled for March 20.

Four of the eight current members of the CEP, however, declined to sign the final results, according to a February 4 story in the Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste. The paper reported that the decision was published under the sole signature of council president Gaillot Dorsinvil.

CEP member Ginette Chérubin told Nouvelliste reporter Robenson Geffrard that she disagreed with the council's verdict and would soon explain her position to the nation. The other CEP members who declined to sign the decision, according to Geffrard, were Ribel Pierre, Jean Thélève Pierre-Toussaint and Jacques Belzin.

The initial results released in December by the CEP had given Manigat first place with 31.4 percent. Second place was awarded to Jude Célestin, the candidate of the currently governing Inité party, with 22.5 percent, less than one percent ahead of Martelly, who had 21.8 percent.

In the final results, however, the CEP elevated Martelly to second place over Célestin under heavy pressure from the United States, the United Nations and other international actors, and after widespread criticism of fraud and other problems.

A verification mission from the Organization of American States, composed mainly of U.S., Canadian and French members, reviewed a sample of the election results and recommended that Martelly be awarded second place. The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a U.S. non-governmental organization that observed the elections, published an analysis of the OAS review challenging it "inconclusive, statistically flawed, and indefensible". Some Haitian observers also criticized the OAS mission as an intrusion on Haitian sovereignty.

The CEP's official statement did not specify any vote totals, but simply listed the names of Manigat in first place and Martelly in second.

Célestin released a statement on the decision saying: "They stole victory from us". He criticized the results as a "prize for violence," apparently referring to several days of street demonstrations in December by supporters of Martelly. Yet he also congratulated the winners.

Several Haitian opposition groups, including the majority of presidential candidates, called for annulment of the results and formation of a provisional government headed by the chief justice of the nation's highest court.

The U.S. Congressional Black Caucus also called for annulment and new elections. In a news release, the CBC said that the "will of the Haitian people" is yet to be determined, and called on the U.S. and the international community to "support a new Haiti election process that is free and fair, respecting the rights of the Haitian people."

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On January 29, the Seattle Times published my op-ed, "Haiti's election undermines democracy." I'm cross-posting an expanded version of the piece here.

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Well before the first ballot was cast, Haiti's November 28 elections were becoming the nation's third catastrophe of 2010, after the earthquake and cholera epidemic.

The decision by the Haitian government, under pressure from the United States and United Nations, to go ahead with voting in the absence of conditions for free and fair elections has shaken an already fragile Haitian democracy. Now electoral aftershocks threaten to undermine the battered country's reconstruction.

The elections were not fair because the electoral system was far from ready to ensure that all Haitians could participate as voters and candidates. This was due in part to slow progress in rebuilding after last year's earthquake, which killed some 300,000 people, 3 percent of Haiti's population and over three times as many deaths in proportion to population as the United Kingdom's losses during World War II. The quake also smashed the government's already weak physical and human infrastructure.

Over half of the estimated 400,000 voters who needed new or replacement voting cards never got them. And many of those voters who did get voting cards late in the process were not on the lists of voters at their polling places when they went to vote. At the same time, many citizens who had died in the earthquake allegedly remained on the voting rolls.

For hundreds of thousands of citizens trying to participate in choosing a new government, many of whom lost family members, homes and jobs in the temblor and have been stuck since in camps for the displaced, the election added insult to injury. Their exclusion dashed their hopes of having a voice in their nation's recovery.

The elections were not free because the Conseil Électoral Provisoire (Provisional Electoral Council) excluded Haiti's largest party, Fanmi Lavalas, and other parties from participation on technicalities. FL's exiled leader, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was deposed in a 2004 coup supported by the United States.

The Haitian movement for popular democracy, which overthrew the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 and supported Aristide with huge majorities in the 90s, has long since fractured along several axes. Some of Aristide's former allies supported his removal. But the ex-president still enjoys strong support in the countryside and bidonvilles (shantytowns). And in a splintered political landscape strewn with weak groupuscules (little groups) built around one person or family, FL is still widely seen as the most broadly based political force.

In a report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Republican Senator Richard Lugar criticized Haitian President René Préval for failing to reform the CEP. "The legitimacy of the upcoming elections could be compromised," he said, by the council's failure to engage the factions of FL in the political process.

The rigidity and insularity of the CEP exacerbated these problems, and it was widely perceived as doing the bidding of the Préval administration. Faced with an impossible job, the CEP should have clarified the obstacles facing the election, the Haitian government should have acknowledged that the country was not ready to vote, and the international community should have supported them. The broad perception that the electoral authority is neither independent nor transparent continues to magnify all the other shortcomings of the process.

As a result of these factors and widespread disenchantment with politics, the turnout on election day was very low: only 22.8 percent of registered voters, according to the Haitian government, compared to 59.3 percent in the 2006 elections. In the area destroyed by the earthquake, turnout was just 12.4 percent. Besides the many people who were excluded, an even larger number apparently decided not to or were unable to vote.

Many candidates alleged, and independent observers documented, widespread and serious fraud. According to a report by a delegation from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a U.S. non-governmental organization, "Reports from the ground told stories of massive disenfranchisement, ballot box stuffing (some caught on tape), intimidation of voters and an overall climate of chaos and confusion." Tally sheets that were not received or had serious irregularities, CEPR said, represented over 24 percent of total votes cast, and clerical errors were found on over 5 percent more of tally sheets.

Because of these serious structural problems prior to the elections, the recount of the ballots recently completed by a delegation from the Organization of American States was less a clarification than a distraction. CEP responses to challenges by many candidates, too, have merely tinkered with the votes recorded, while ignoring the votes that could not be cast.

The main sources of dysfunction in this election involved not what ended up in the ballot boxes, but rather what never made it into them.

In a speech in Switzerland, Max Chauvet, President of l'Association National des Médias Haïtien (National Association of Haitian Media), asserted that the electoral machinery of the CEP was not ready for the balloting, nor were the political parties, nor was the population, which faced insurmountable problems of daily survival.

"But this was not a surprise: we saw all the signs of weakness before November 28," Chauvet said. "When you add the attitude of all candidates that they could not lose, you end up with widespread fraud in all phases."

Official desperation to hold elections as scheduled was not surprising. The Préval government is widely viewed as ineffectual in dealing with relief and recovery efforts, and subservient to international donors. Most Haitians seem united in wanting it to leave office by February 7 when its mandate ends.

Yet given all of the mutually reinforcing failures, many Haitians appear to support annulment of the election results. In similar crises, other countries have formed temporary governments of national unity or caretaker governments led by respected elders until conditions to hold respectable elections can be established. How Haiti resolves this impasse, however, must be decided by Haitians.

Even when a new government can be seated, many Haitians will perceive it as relatively powerless next to the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti. This international body controls foreign aid flows much greater than the government's budget, yet its members from the international donor community appear to dominate its decision-making.

Beyond the political kabuki in Port-au-Prince, though, many Haitians are working patiently to build public institutions on the foundation of a still robust civil society. Local peasant and community groups counting hundreds of thousands of members offer resilient models of Jeffersonian democracy.

Despite widespread corruption, compounded by earthquake losses of a quarter of government employees, functional organizations and capable people still survive within national and local governments.

As a Haitian proverb says: "Piti, piti, zwazo fè nich li." ("Little by little the bird makes her nest").

Democracy cannot be implanted by foreign powers. Only Haitians can grow their own indigenous strains in the rocky soil left by a long history of murderous kleptocracy.

The return of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, though disruptive, provides a teachable moment for those too young to remember the profound damage inflicted by decades of the Duvalier family and subsequent military dictatorships, with our government's frequent complicity.

Even under the best conditions, democracy can be messy, volatile and frustrating. Yet only if all Haitians, especially the more than three-quarters who live on two dollars a day or less, can emerge into public life at all levels as protagonists in their country's rebirth will government of, by and for the people be able to put down deep roots in Haiti.


Peter Costantini is an independent analyst who has covered elections in Haiti, Nicaragua and Mexico, and led an electoral observation delegation to Nicaragua. He spent May 2010 in Haiti as a journalist and volunteer.