• CEP, State Department, and Granderson see to it that former President Aristide and his Lavalas Party are marginalized in the upcoming presidential race
• Haitians’ involvement in their own election limited by international and regional bodies, as well as the U.S., France, Canada, and the UN
• CEP’s continued disservice to the Haitian electoral process
Haiti’s fast-approaching November 28 presidential and legislative elections will take place at a critical juncture in the country’s history. Haiti is still reeling from the devastating earthquake in January, and now it has the additional burden of battling the effects of a deepening cholera outbreak. Conducting elections in the midst of such a crisis presents a grave challenge for Haiti’s fragile democracy, which, in its short history, has been plagued by instability, corruption, and repeated instances of political intervention from Washington. To fully understand the magnitude of this challenge, however, mere familiarity with Haiti’s current political scene is insufficient—the upcoming elections must necessarily be placed within the context of Haiti’s tumultuous political history. This article seeks to explain the importance of Haiti’s election by first placing it in the historical context of recent Haitian politics and then by explaining the current political situation.
Haitian Elections : 1987-2009
Following nearly thirty years at the hands of the brutal Duvalier dynasty, Haiti was placed under the authority of the interim Conseil National de Gouvernement (CNG), a provisional council made up of civilian and military leaders. Although the CNG did dismantle some of the Duvalier’s repressive systems, the joint civilian-military government failed to reign in the notoriously oppressive Haitian armed forces. The Duvaliers had banned opposition parties, and their overthrow permitted several political groups to emerge from exile. In addition to these, dozens of new political entities entered the scene in anticipation of democratic elections. In November of 1987, however, widespread violence and voter intimidation forced Haitian political activists to abort their initial attempt to hold free and fair elections . Haiti’s first post-Duvalier election in February of 1988 was a farce of democracy ; due to the violence during the election attempt in 1987, many key candidates boycotted the election, and voter turnout was less than 4 percent . Leslie Manigat won the 1988 election, but his tenure was short-lived. Just months after being installed in office, Haitian soldiers deposed Manigat when he attempted to reorganize the military. Thus, the armed forces once again gained effective control of Haiti, holding power until a popular uprising forced them out in March of 1990 .
In December of 1990, Haiti held what is widely considered to be its first modern democratic election. Eleven candidates participated in the election, and the majority of eligible Haitians cast their ballots. The contest was dominated by two candidates at opposite ends of the political spectrum – Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Marc Bazin. Aristide, a former priest, was an outspoken critic of military rule and internationally-crafted neoliberal economic policies. While his promises of social and political reform endeared him to the majority of the Haitian people, Aristide’s stance was perceived as a threat by the Haitian military, wealthy Haitians, and the U.S. ; consequently, he became the target of several assassination attempts. Bazin, in contrast, was a former World Bank official and minister of finance under Jean-Claude Duvalier. He advocated increased integration in foreign markets, becoming the favorite of both the wealthy Haitian elite and U.S. authorities . The result of the election was truly a notable triumph for Haitian democracy – Aristide won the election with over two-thirds of the popular vote, while Bazin finished a distant second with 14 percent. No other candidate attracted more than 5 percent of the vote . Despite minor irregularities, the UN Observer Group for the Verification of the Elections in Haiti declared the elections “highly successful” .
However, democratic rule did not last long for Haiti ; in September of 1991, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup and forced into exile, while Washington remained silent . Haiti again suffered under military rule until October of 1994, when Aristide was reinstated under the condition that he accept neoliberal market reforms such as those outlined in the Paris Accords . Half of all eligible voters participated in the subsequent 1995 legislative elections, which were dominated by Aristide’s Lavalas party. The Carter Center called the elections “disastrous technically,” but claimed that there was no evidence of organized corruption . Aristide was barred from running in the 1995 presidential elections due to Haiti’s constitutional restriction on consecutive presidential terms. René Préval, Aristide’s former prime minister, was elected to the presidency in December of 1995, with a voter turnout of only 31 percent .
In 1997, Haiti attempted to hold elections for nine seats in the Senate and two seats in the Chamber of Deputies. In the first round of voting, only two candidates won the simple majority necessary to win the election in their departments. The second round of voting was postponed indefinitely due to international pressure stemming from alleged irregularities during the first round .
The Lavalas party retained control of the legislature in 2000, winning 72 out of 82 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and all the seats in the Senate. However, the elections were once again tainted by allegations of corruption, and the OAS withdrew its observation group after the first round of voting, claiming that the results had been fixed . When Préval’s term ended in 2001, Aristide was elected president for a second term. Estimates of voter participation varied considerably, amidst widespread reports of abnormalities.
During his second term as president, Aristide resisted heavy pressure from the U.S., French, and Canadian governments to privatize key industries, and relations between Haiti and the overseas powers consequently deteriorated . In 2004, Haitian rebels staged a coup d’état, and U.S. Marines used implicit threats against Aristide’s private security force to prevent him from remaining in the country. Washington denied any complicity, but the evidence was there to be seen in spite of the State Department’s insistence that its actions were taken for Aristide’s own protection. After Aristide was forced into exile again, his Lavalas party faced brutal repression from political opponents, and later was banned from participating in the political process .
After the coup, the U.S. and several international organizations facilitated the establishment of an interim government headed by Gérard Latortue, a figure whose democratic credentials were very much in doubt. He quickly instituted a series of questionable changes and used government institutions to abuse his political opponents. The most visible of these changes was the restructuring of the Conseil Électoral Provisoire (CEP), an independent agency charged with the regulation of elections. From its inception, it was clear that the CEP maintained partisan allegiances. As established in the Interim Cooperation Framework Report, the CEP included “representatives of several sectors of civil society and the political parties, rather than individuals chosen for their knowledge of the electoral process” .Predictably, the representatives selected to carry out the CEP’s functions were overtly hostile to the recently overthrown Lavalas party, and the CEP became widely regarded as a tool used by the political establishment to influence the outcome of elections. After two years of provisional governance, Haiti finally held presidential and legislative elections in 2006.
The 2006 presidential election, however, was marred by the absence of a legitimate Lavalas candidate. Lavalas had entered Father Gérard Jean-Juste as a presidential candidate, but prior to the election he was accused of complicity in a murder case and imprisoned. The CEP ruled that Jean-Juste could not run because he was unable to register in person, a ruling with no legal basis in Haiti’s constitution . In response to the CEP’s politically motivated decision, many Lavalas supporters boycotted the election, while others decided to support Préval, who had separated himself politically from Aristide after the coup. Préval , running for his second term under the banner of the Lespwa party, initially appeared to have the necessary majority, but his numbers dipped sharply as the final ballots were being tabulated. Ultimately, Préval came away with 48.8 percent of the vote, a significant plurality but not the simple majority of votes required to win the presidency. Facing the unsavory possibility of a runoff, Préval claimed the election had been fraudulent, and his supporters took to the streets en masse. After extensive investigations and the invalidation of thousands of ballots, Préval was declared the outright winner  . In the legislative elections, only two candidates tallied the necessary 50 percent of the vote in their departments, and the rest of the seats were determined in a runoff two months later. The Lepswa party won the plurality, though not the majority of seats in the runoff, which suffered from a disappointingly low registered voter turnout of only 28 percent  .
The 2009 Senate elections presented yet another source of controversy. The CEP approved 78 candidates from 32 parties to contest the 11 available Senate seats. Lavalas candidates were again notably (and unjustifiably) absent from the ballot. While 17 Lavalas members had registered for the elections, they were summarily disqualified by the CEP for their failure to submit a signed letter by Aristide, who, according to the CEP, was still head of the party. In protest of the decision, Lavalas called for a boycott of the elections. A pathetic 11 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, demonstrating both Haitians’ disinterest in the elections and the lasting political power of Lavalas. Lespwa won six of the 11 seats in the election, and the rest of the seats were divided among smaller parties .Following the elections, Préval created a new political coalition, INITE, to replace Lespwa, but the change in name did not signify a change in policy or ideology .
The 2010 Election
Having served the maximum two terms allowed by the Haitian constitution, Préval is not permitted to seek reelection in 2010. Following the earthquake, he suggested that he might extend his term by three months in order to provide stability during Haiti’s post-earthquake recovery . This move was strongly condemned by the international community, and in response, Préval quickly committed to holding elections by the end of the year.
Granderson and CEP Go to U.S. Policy
As in previous elections, the CEP has once again infringed on the democratic process, invalidating the candidacy of 15 presidential candidates without explanation . Furthermore, though the Lavalas party submitted a notarized document signed by Aristide and fulfilled all the constitutional requirements necessary to participate in the elections. The CEP prohibited the party from entering a candidate, purportedly due to the party’s failure to submit a signed document in the 2009 Senate elections . Some, such as Colin Granderson, Chief of Mission of the Joint OAS/CARICOM Electoral Observation Mission, have downplayed the exclusion of the Lavalas party. According to Granderson, several presidential candidates represent the Lavalas platform, and thus the absence of the party itself is inconsequential . Many candidates do indeed have a background in the Lavalas party and may advocate some of the reforms initially proposed by Aristide ; however, this hardly makes the elections more democratic. Many Haitians base their votes on party or name recognition, and thus the absence of the Fanmi Lavalas name on the ballot is itself highly problematic. Also, due to the presence of many candidates who could draw backing from Lavalas supporters, the Lavalas vote will likely be spread among several candidates, diluting the party’s power. On October 15, Lavalas directly addressed its lack of representation in the upcoming elections, stating that the party “is not supporting any candidate, it doesn’t have anybody representing it, and it is not sending anybody to represent it” .
In addition to the supposed “unofficial” Lavalas candidates, there are many other presidential hopefuls who have articulated a position similar to that of Préval’s more moderate coalition. Despite a general atmosphere of political discontent following Préval’s lack of leadership in the aftermath of the earthquake, the president still holds significant political power. His governing coalition, INITE, remains highly influential : during the summer, the parties endorsement was highly sought-after. Préval initially selected former Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis to run under the banner of his INITE party, but in a surprising move, the party leadership rejected the nomination and instead selected Jude Célestin, the director of the Centre National des Equipements (CNE), Haiti’s state-operated construction organization. Alexis quickly shifted to the somewhat obscure Mobilisation pour le Progrès Haïtien (MPH) party to preserve his candidacy.
Célestin’s Presidential Bid
The factors behind INITE’s selection of Célestin remain unclear. Célestin is not seen as a prominent political figure, and outside of his post at the CNE, he has not held any significant appointments. Alexis is much more experienced than Célestin, and it seems that he would have provided INITE with a far better chance of winning the presidential election. The coalition’s decision to support Célestin rather than Alexis may suggest that some factions within the party believe they can benefit from a relatively weak and inexperienced president. This is a worrisome possibility, and it may indicate corruption within the party. The alleged involvement of brothers Joseph and Wenceslas Lambert, both powerful members of the Haitian Senate, in the selection of Célestin is particularly troublesome. Although the evidence is somewhat sparse, it is thought by some that the brothers may be linked to illicit activities such as drug trafficking and political assassinations, and the election of Célestin could bring them undue influence in the new government .
Political groups opposed to both the Lavalas ideology and the Préval administration are also well represented among other presidential candidates. The traditional right-wing opposition group, Rassemblement des Démocrates Nationaux Progressistes (RDNP), is represented by Mirlande Manigat, the wife of former President Leslie Manigat. According to Kim Ives, the editor of Haiti Liberté, RDNP is a neo-Duvalierist organization that has expressed support for the coups that overthrew President Aristide . Despite the party’s historical record, Manigat has tried to portray RDNP as a center-left institution, most likely in an attempt to broaden her support on the eve of the election. Charles Henry Baker, a prominent industrialist, will likely also draw support from Haiti’s right.
Despite clear differences between presidential candidates, in many campaigns, issues and ideology appear to have taken a back seat to more pragmatic concerns. According to Manigat, “[Haitians] are looking for jobs, life, schooling for their children. Not ideologies” . Many candidates have not developed a comprehensive political platform, preferring instead to emphasize their capacity for leadership and their ability to manage the current crisis. Those participating in the election have downplayed the differences between themselves and other candidates, rather focusing on building a consensus among political factions. Even experienced politicians such as Alexis seem to have cast aside the notion of ideological differences : “The ideological values that allowed us to determine if someone is to the left, center or the right, we don’t see them anymore” . The effort of politicians to project an image of homogeneity and unity is most likely a politically motivated response to the practical necessities of the reconstruction period. Ideological division still remains in Haiti, and while the challenges of building a functional infrastructure and providing basic services currently overshadow the debates between rival factions, voters are cognizant of ideological differences. Accordingly, these differences are likely to continue to play an important role in the upcoming elections.
In late October, Manigat and Célestin were running neck and neck, each with slightly more than 20 percent of Haitians’ support .At the time, no other candidate was receiving more than 10 percent support . According to a more recent poll, Manigat now leads Célestin by eight points with 30 percent support. Based on the data presented in these polls, it is probable that the election will head into a runoff, most likely between Manigat and Célestin. In this scenario, most factors seem to favor Célestin. The majority of candidates are ideologically more similar to Célestin than Manigat, and Célestin would therefore most likely pick up the majority of votes that are cast for candidates who had been disqualified after the first round. Furthermore, according to Reginald Boulos, chairman of the Economic Forum of the Private Sector, those who expressed support for Célestin are more likely to vote than those who expressed support for Manigat .
In the legislative elections that are also scheduled for November 28, INITE seems well poised to retain its plurality in both houses. Such an outcome would certainly be advantageous for Célestin were he to win the presidency. However, INITE is more of a coalition than a party united around a central ideology, so even if it does dominate the elections, there will still be considerable political diversity in Haiti’s legislature.
The Importance of Elections
Unfortunately, according to historical precedent, a successful election is a feat in itself for Haiti. Moreover, for this election cycle, Haiti continues to suffer the devastating effects of the earthquake, as well as the ongoing cholera epidemic. Half of the voting booths in the Ouest department were destroyed in the earthquake, and around 1.3 million people were displaced . For these reasons, many questioned whether Haiti was even capable of holding elections at this time. However, while a number of issues are likely to remain unresolved, Haiti now seems adequately positioned to go through with the elections on November 28. Indeed, according to the head of the UN mission to Haiti, Edmond Mulet, over 4 million Haitians have registered, and it appears that there will be a sufficient turnout to give credibility to the elections .
While the fact that Haiti is holding elections is significant, the short-term effect that they will have on the country is unlikely to be great. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Haitian government became somewhat of a marginalized institution. Foreign governments and international organizations assumed control of the relief effort, and the majority of foreign assistance has been funneled through NGOs, completely bypassing the Haitian government. It is unlikely that a new president will be able to quickly change this power dynamic, which is deeply rooted in Haiti’s history. Haiti’s traditional relationship with foreign institutions is a complex and often painful story which has fostered a good deal of resentment among the Haitian people. In the past, for example, foreign governments have supported the overthrow of democratically elected leaders and exploited the Haitian people by undercutting local food markets. More recently, the international community has failed to provide adequate assistance to many Haitians in the aftermath of the earthquake. While much of the resentment of foreign institutions is justified, it must be acknowledged that many continue to perform much needed and highly valued tasks. Furthermore, foreign governments and multilateral donor institutions have promised billions of dollars in aid over the coming years. If these promises are fulfilled and aid money is distributed equitably to address the real needs of the Haitian people, the potential benefits are high. We are thus left with a bitter irony ; Haiti has often suffered tremendously from the actions of foreign actors in the past, yet it remains highly dependent on these external forces for many basic needs. This dependency will not be alleviated quickly, and the challenge for the new president will be to reap benefits from international institutions while simultaneously moving the country toward greater self-sufficiency.
Due to the current predominance of international organizations in Haiti, it is improbable that the new president will have significant power to direct the reconstruction process or the response to the cholera outbreak. Both are largely controlled by foreign governments and NGOs, which have set plans that are unlikely to be altered by a new administration. In addition, the new president is not likely to address the two major impediments to democracy in the country – the exclusion of the Lavalas party and the opaque practices of the CEP. Having benefited from the political status quo, the new president will have little motivation to change unfair and corrupt practices in the electoral system. Thus, all of these factors make it quite improbable that a new administration will bring transformative political change to a country that desperately needs a new direction.
Interestingly, the upcoming Haitian elections have become a contentious, albeit relatively low profile, issue in the United States. Officially, the U.S. government has been supportive of Haiti’s efforts to hold elections. In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that elections must be held quickly in order “to ensure the stability and legitimacy of the Haitian government” . On October 7, several members of Congress sent an open letter to Secretary Clinton concerning factors that could complicate the electoral process, such as the internal displacement of individuals, and the CEP’s unexplained exclusion of many candidates and political parties. The letter concludes, “The United States government should also state unequivocally that it will not provide funding for elections that do not meet these minimum, basic democratic requirements” .
The concerns voiced in the letter certainly are legitimate, and it is likely true that the elections will not be completely fair and free. While many in Congress seem to take a rather idealistic approach to the elections, the U.S. government, along with several international and regional institutions such as the UN, CARICOM and the OAS, appears willing to look past evidence of corruption in order to achieve a minimal sense of stability within Haiti. The elections will have certain flaws whether or not the U.S. lends its support, and by continuing to support the elections, the U.S. may be able to make minor improvements in the electoral process. However, as the congressional representatives note, by supporting the elections, the U.S. runs the risk of being perceived to condone corrupt practices, a reputation in the region it has attempted to remove with limited success.
The argument within the U.S. government regarding Haiti is representative of the tension between the immediate need for stability and the ideals of progress and democratic freedom in Sunday’s election. In this situation, it seems probable that many international organizations and foreign governments will compromise ideals to guarantee stability. While this decision is understandable, it is unfortunate that important matters, such as Haiti’s relationship with foreign institutions and corruption within the electoral system, are likely to go unaddressed in these elections.
It is necessary to approach the elections with realistic expectations. No matter the outcome, the upcoming elections will not immediately solve the many acute problems that confront Haiti. What can be hoped for, however, is that the elections provide a platform where these issues can eventually be addressed. Democracies take time to develop, and Haiti will be no different. The elections will in all likelihood be flawed, but they may provide a measure of stability that permits the country to step back and focus on issues such as economic, social, and political development. Nevertheless, there is the danger that after the elections, Haiti will fall into a new, equally unacceptable equilibrium where corruption and injustice are tolerated as simple facts of life. To avoid this trap, Haitians and those in the international community must continue to seek constructive and effective ways to express disapproval of the status quo and hold the government accountable for its actions. The upcoming elections are a small landmark in what will hopefully be Haiti’s path to a democratic society. While these elections are certainly an important step for providing stability in the midst of crisis, real, transformative change will only come far after the new administration takes power.