Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What is the Solution for Haitian Elections?

Photo by John Carroll
December, 2010

Posted on Mon, Dec. 20, 2010

Solution for Haiti's election? Depends on who's talking


In a traumatized nation with a poor history of clean voting, Haiti's recent elections were a disaster waiting to happen.
There was -- and is -- pervasive lack of confidence in the eight members of the electoral council because some perceive them as being hand-picked by President René Préval.

Allegations of massive fraud were rampant even before polling stations opened for the Nov. 28 presidential and legislative elections, whose final results are yet to be released.

And the international community, which paid most of the $29 million tab for the elections, vacillated between paternalistic bullying of Haitian officials and a hands-off partnership.

Now that same international community -- unsure over what should come next as Haiti's electoral commission delays the final vote count while technical experts from the United States and elsewhere sift through tally sheets -- is faced with how to get Haiti back on track.

What everyone wants to avoid is a downward spiral into chaos that will hamper future efforts to help the quake-battered nation recover.

The way forward is not clear, and there are no easy choices. They range from an outright annulment of the vote with an interim government charged with organizing new elections -- in perhaps two years -- to a power-sharing agreement.

Among the ideas that have been suggested:

• Cancellation of this round of elections and Préval's early departure. So far opposed by the international community, this idea was put forth by 12 presidential candidates in a letter-writing campaign with Canadian and U.S. lawmakers launched last week.

• A second round with the presumed top three vote-getters: Former first lady and academic Mirlande Manigat, former government agency head and Préval pick Jude Célestin and musician Michel ``Sweet Micky'' Martelly, whose backers set the streets ablaze after the council said he had been edged out of a runoff spot by Célestin.

Brazil has pushed for this alternative. Questions have been raised about the constitutionality of such a move. Manigat opposes it.

• A new winner-take-all election with all 17 presidential candidates taking part and appointment of a new electoral council. Martelly put forth this idea. Some say it has little chance of winning favor.

• A runoff with Martelly and Manigat, courtesy of Célestin, who would voluntarily withdraw. There would also be a runoff for legislative seats with the likely outcome of Préval's INITE (UNITY) coalition controlling a majority in parliament.

• A second round with Manigat and Célestin, after which the winner would face questions of legitimacy.

• Formation of a coalition government with the opposition.

``We now have an electoral challenge that is acute,'' U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week during a visit to Canada. ``The electoral challenge, the instability in the government, the lack of a clear way forward as to who will be assuming leadership responsibilities, requires the international community to act and provide technical assistance, provide support for unraveling the complexities and questions surrounding the election.''

The story of how Haiti and its foreign friends reached this dangerous impasse is a tale of good intentions by outsiders clashing with the harsh realities of a nation with weak institutions, a shattered government and a history of electoral fraud.

``We've had elections since 1987, and with the exception of 1990, all of them quite bad. I don't think we've made much progress,'' said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia.

Even before the November vote, many Haitians doubted whether their country could pull off acceptable elections.

While a gentleman's agreement to postpone the vote might have worked in some other countries, it couldn't in a nation with a history of dictatorship and distrust.

A national survey of 1,275 Haitians taken on behalf of the United States Agency for International Development revealed that while an increasing number of Haitians planned to vote, respondents were equally split on whether the elections would be fair or not.

In fact, the survey showed that 39 percent of respondents interviewed between Aug. 18 and Sept. 2 believed the electoral council was corrupt. Overall confidence in the council had fallen to 56 percent in June of 2010 from a high of 78 percent the previous June.

Weeks before the vote, Colin Granderson, head of the joint Organization of American States-Caribbean Community observer mission, remarked that the main obstacle to good elections had nothing to do with the technical expertise or know-how of the council.

It had to do with ``the total lack of trust in the impartiality of the [council].''

Préval told The Miami Herald earlier this year that twice he had changed the council on the recommendation of various groups and opposition leaders. Each time, he said, the opposition complained about the new appointees.

Haiti watchers say Préval should have recognized that it was in his own interest and that of the country's to completely replace the council.

Others criticize the international community, especially the United States, for wavering on how to handle the election. The United States, for example, went from wanting to stack the council with technical experts to changing its mind days later, without explanation. Adding to the challenge: The entire United Nations electoral brain trust died in the cataclysmic earthquake.

Failure to change the electoral council, said Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group, a Washington think tank, ``simply fed the view that the electoral process was never going to produce a fair result.''

``Now what may be the only way to get any agreed-upon next step is for a high level internationally respected panel to review or carry out a verification process and make recommendations for a way forward,'' Schneider said.

Yvon Neptune, one of the few presidential candidates not calling for a cancellation of the vote, said the provisional electoral council is not solely to blame for the mess.

``What we are seeing now in the electoral process is a reflection of Haitian society. You take all of the sectors that are involved in the electoral process, directly or indirectly, and there is a question of credibility,'' he said. ``We are a product of our history. It has been a history of turmoil. It has been a history of corruption.''

Since doing away with dictatorship 24 years ago, Haiti has struggled to build democracy and institutions up against inequities in wealth distribution, a lack of rule of law, overthrown governments -- and now a feeling of despair after the January earthquake.

A deadly cholera outbreak and largely invisible reconstruction effort have contributed to the general atmosphere of gloom and disappointment.

Meanwhile, the international community has wavered between wanting to allow Haitians to chart their own course and getting more involved in the details.

``However unpopular Préval may be, he represents continuity, which is the single most important thing the international community values,'' Fatton said. ``In other words bad elections will be tolerated in the name of continuity. The problem though is that continuity is not necessarily what Haitians want.''

Some argue that a political agreement is needed now -- not later.

With opposition to Préval far from monolithic, he remains the key actor in Haitian politics.

Still, some in the international community have given up on the man once viewed as Haiti's ``indispensable'' politician. ``Eighty percent of the Haitians voted against him,'' said one foreign diplomat, since his candidate, Célestin, got only 22 percent of the vote.

That reality along with the accusations of fraud by INITE, and the fear of violence in the coming days, has diplomats wondering about what will become of Préval. Will he, like most of his predecessors, exit into exile -- or will he become Haiti's elder statesman?

Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University professor and political analyst, said the most important thing over the longer term will be getting a credible government in place.

``But that credible government will have to come from among the three [top vote-getters]. The question is who among them is best able to help Haiti on that path -- a singer with no real record of administrating, a former first lady who is dignified but has no real record or a man who has run a government construction company with extraordinary ties to the old Haitian establishment and all that means?''

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