As I pen this column, the Electoral Commission in Haiti is still “recounting” the ballots from an ill conceived and flawed election that threatens to impede progress towards building a new Haiti. The international community, including the United States, which is bankrolling Haiti’s reconstruction, seems at a loss for how to untangle a mess caused by their insistence on pushing for elections under almost impossible circumstances. President Rene Preval was also very eager for the elections to proceed, especially since he felt confident that millions of dollars expended on his handpicked successor Jude Celestin and the INITE Party would ensure victory and his role as Prime Minister or defacto President in the new government. Wikileaks disclosures simply confirmed what was widely known for months, Preval is eager to have a Putin-Medvedev type arrangement to maintain his hold on power. However, the election proved to be a disaster, and if the country does not clean up the incredible mess created by errors, failures and fraud, it will have a negative effect on an already bleak situation in terms of the effort to build the new Haiti.
The election was ill conceived from the outset. In the report from the Haiti Support Project’s February 9-12, Fact Finding and Assessment Delegation, we made the following observation and recommendation.
“As a practical matter, the destruction of government ministries and the loss of voter registration records for millions of Haitians will make it virtually impossible to hold inclusive, free and fair elections for the National Assembly, Senate and President as scheduled. Moreover, there is an argument to be made for galvanizing all of the nation’s resources to focus on the arduous tasks of recovery and reconstruction in the months ahead. Elections, competitive ‘politics as usual,’ could be a major distraction from the major, immediate mission of getting the reconstruction effort off the ground. Accordingly, in the face of what is certainly a state of national emergency, the Government might be prudent to propose a formula for the creation of an Interim Government of National Reconstruction. In essence the Interim governing authority would be an inclusive body comprised of capable Ministers from various major political parties, civil society and the private sector.“
Privately, some leaders on the ground conceded that under the circumstances having an election would be highly problematic. I shared these concerns with key Haiti experts and allies in the Congressional Black Caucus and urged them to devise a consensus strategy that would provide for the election under favorable conditions. Unfortunately, few people took the potential for disaster seriously. Congresswoman Maxine Waters and other members of Congress legitimately raised objections about the exclusion of Lavalas from the election process, but no one vocally raised concerns about the feasibility of holding an election in the midst of a state of emergency. Even with the outbreak of cholera, which was obviously another major complicating factor, the international community was hell bent on pressing ahead with the election.
The international community’s rationale for holding an election under such adverse conditions was the need to have a “legitimately elected government” in place to move the reconstruction process forward. This was/is obviously a valid concern, particularly given the desire to maintain a governing structure consistent with the provisions of the Constitution. There were also reservations about the effectiveness of the Preval Government. However, in a state of emergency that included the massive displacement of people and loss of voter registration records, I still contend that officials should have made every effort to devise a formula for an interim government of national reconstruction for a period of a year to 18 months.
The decision to move forward with the elections was fraught with huge risks that later materialized to essentially render this election invalid. It is clear that hundreds of thousands of displaced persons never received registration cards, and thousands more were totally uninformed or confused about where to cast their ballots. There are also credible reports of massive ballot box stuffing by various parties with Preval’s INITE Party singled out as one of the primary offenders. A restless electorate seemed determined to reject anyone closely associated with what the public increasingly perceives as an ineffective government. Hence, despite millions of dollars pumped into his campaign, the candidacy of Jude Celestin was plummeting as the election drew near. Prior to the ill-fated vote, polls indicated that Mrs. Mirlande Manigat would likely be the leading vote getter with a battle shaping up between Compas music legend Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly and Jude Celestin for second place. With virtually all the candidates suspicious that a “fix” was on, it was predictable that all hell would break loose when the Electoral Commission initially announced that Celestin had edged out Martelly by one percentage point to face Mrs. Manigat in a run-off. Indeed, even before the results were announced, twelve of the sixteen presidential candidates including Manigat and Martelly called a press conference to declare the election null and void alleging widespread voter fraud (Manigat and Martelly later changed their tune when it appeared the results might show them as the leading candidates). Violence erupted across the country after the election results and it sent Haiti spiraling into yet another political crisis.
I realize that officials may not heed my advice. Still, it is my considered judgment that the country should void the fractious and flawed election and a realistic date set for a new election with the following provisions. The Electoral Commission should reconstitute to ensure its impartiality. There is a widespread perception that the present Commission is a tool of the Preval Government. The Lavalas political party or parties should be participants in the election. Officials should not invoke narrowly interpreted bureaucratic rules to exclude legitimate political parties from the electoral process. Admitting Lavalas to the process will end an injustice that is a source of grievance and tension in the country. An extensive effort should ensure that every Haitian citizen who wishes to participate in the election has a proper registration card. Polling places should be numerous and accessible; including in the tent communities and a massive voter education campaign should proceed the election in which citizens are informed about the location of the polling places. Hundreds of international monitors should observe the voting and attest to the fair and open nature of the process. Finally, an interim government of national reconstruction would preside over the affairs of state until Haitians elect a new government.
I can hear the howls from the international community now over the enormous cost of redoing the election after the millions of dollars invested in the present effort. My response is that the cost of attempting to legitimize a woefully flawed election is to impose an illegitimate government on the people of Haiti in the name of saving money. The international community should admit that it was a mistake to attempt to do elections under such dire circumstances and make the correct and courageous decision to invest the additional millions required to do the elections right! We need a real, not fake democracy in Haiti. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, the masses of Haitian workers, peasants, the poor, the displaced and dispossessed are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” They are the future of Haiti’s democracy and development, and they deserve to have their voices heard. To do otherwise is to undermine the prospects of building a new Haiti.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at email@example.com.