Ending Haiti’s Crisis Begins With Giving Haitians a Fair Vote
- There is no question that Haiti’s government has hit the ground hard lately. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe’s Cabinet resigned in December, following mounting criticism of its record on human rights and the economy, as well as its failure to hold local and parliamentary elections for over three years. The election delays rendered parliament dysfunctional last month, as terms expired for a third of Haiti’s Senate seats and the entire Chamber of Deputies.
Meanwhile, on the streets, a steadily growing opposition movement generates at least one large anti-government demonstration each week. For two days last week, cities across Haiti were paralyzed by a public transit strike against government-set fuel prices. On the economic front, public investment in Haiti dropped 65 percent in the last three months of 2014, compared to the previous year. The government has also racked up $1.6 billion in oil debts through its involvement in Venezuela’s generous Petrocaribe program, which allows Haiti to buy cheap oil with deferred financing and then sell it for a higher domestic price and pocket the difference. Although that has allowed the Haitian government to fund social programs to check more popular dissent, Haiti’s beleaguered president, Michel Martelly, will leave much of that bill to his successors, to be paid over the next 25 years.
All this is a crisis for Martelly, but also for his foreign friends. The United States, Haiti’s largest donor, has been particularly supportive throughout his four years in office. U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Pamela White has enthusiastically promoted the government’s pro-business policies, which have been pursued by four different finance ministers since 2010, while disparaging the opposition. As the political crisis reached a boiling point in early January, White publicly twisted lawmakers’ arms to support Martelly’s not-quite constitutional efforts to install an electoral council and promulgate an electoral law.
Both were necessary to open the way to new elections, the focal point of Haiti’s crisis. Voting for one-third of the Senate and all municipal posts is overdue from 2011, and for another third of the Senate and all of the House of Deputies from last fall. All of the votes were required by the Constitution, but were not held. That has left the parliamentary seats vacant, while the municipal posts were filled with presidential appointees. As a result, Haitians are supposed to be voting this year for every elected office in the country save 10 Senate seats.
The most apparent cause of the election delays had been the failure to establish an electoral council to run them. Martelly had proposed a series of councils, but none quite met the Constitution’s requirements, and each gave the executive unfair influence over the process. These initiatives generated enough distrust that many opponents now insist that Martelly must resign before fair elections can be held. The U.S., the United Nations and others enthusiastically supported the failed initiatives, which increased popular distrust and undermined the international community’s ability to serve as honest brokers.
Martelly himself is not eligible for re-election when his term expires in 2016, but his opponents fear that he will try to maintain his party’s hold on power through electoral manipulation. They especially worry that his proposed electoral councils would find pretexts to exclude candidates and parties, as his predecessor, Rene Preval, did in 2010. Washington and the U.N. promise to insist on fair elections, but they made that promise in 2010 and still went on to finance the deeply flawed vote after Preval excluded his strongest opponents.
The stakes in this year’s elections are high, both in Haiti and abroad. A party winning the presidency, a parliamentary majority and the lion’s share of local offices would have an enormous ability to implement its vision for the next five years. A sharp loss by Martelly’s Farmers’ Response party, which now seems likely, would be a rebuke to the government, but also to its supporters overseas. The U.N. peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH, is particularly unpopular in Haiti, and it is likely that a government created by fair elections would push it to take responsibility for a deadly cholera epidemic introduced to the country in 2010 by a U.N. peacekeeping contingent. Martelly has so far refrained from blaming the U.N. for the outbreak, despite the U.N.’s own high commissioner for human rights recommending the organization take responsibility for it.
Nevertheless, there have been some promising signs that Haiti is bouncing up after bottoming out. A new consensus government was sworn in on Jan. 20, and a new Provisional Electoral Council on Jan. 23. Both bodies are less controversial than their predecessors, though fears over the latter’s impartiality remain. In another encouraging sign, the electoral council just announced a provisional calendar for elections in July and October.
Yet neither the new government nor the electoral council is fully constitutional. Both require approval of a parliament that, with only 10 senators, can no longer conduct any business. The consensus government does not include representation from many opposition parties, especially the Rally of Progressive National Democrats and Fanmi Lavalas, the two most popular. Top leaders of both parties appear to be waiting for proof that the elections will be fair before making any commitments. Meanwhile, many of their supporters are in the streets calling for regime change.
The international community’s approach to Haiti’s electoral crisis will profoundly influence whether Haiti rebounds or tunnels deeper into undemocratic rule and unrest. If the electoral council tries to run unfair elections, the U.S. could save embarrassment and the U.N. could reduce cholera liability risk by supporting them. But these will be short-term victories, as unfair elections will undoubtedly lead to even more massive political disruption and, potentially, violence. That would challenge U.N. peacekeepers and frustrate Washington’s stated Haiti policy objectives, including economic growth and poverty reduction, improved health care and food security, promoting respect for human rights and building effective democratic institutions.
The international community is faced with a choice in Haiti best captured by U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s observation that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” It can help Haiti’s evolution toward a stable and fully implemented democracy, by insisting that Haitian voters be given the chance to choose their next leaders—or it can make deterioration inevitable.