Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Elections Without Voters: Eroding Participation in Haiti

Konbit Pou Ayiti – Working Together for Haiti

Twenty years after its first democratic elections, Haiti is preparing for a vote to fill all but one seat in its Chamber of Deputies and ten of its thirty Senate seats. However, as the election date of February 28 rapidly approaches, the United States and other donor countries should withhold funding and observers from what is shaping up to be a selection rather than an election.

Recent reports and statements about the elections have focused on one key issue that is likely to undermine the election: The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), appointed by President Rene Preval, has excluded fifteen political parties from fielding candidates in the February contest. However, even if these parties are included in the election, the disenfranchisement of the majority of Haitians will still render the results of the election invalid.

U.S. Foreign Policy: Building Pluralism in Haiti – Until Now

After two decades of working to encourage political pluralism in Haiti, including the disbursement of millions of dollars to political parties labeled the “opposition,” the U.S. has an obligation to condemn the CEP for excluding fifteen well-known political parties. Ten years ago the U.S. and the international community boycotted elections because opposition parties themselves chose to not participate, accusing that CEP of being controlled by the Fanmi Lavalas party. Today some of these same parties are being intentionally excluded from participating, along side the Fanmi Lavalas party.

This glaring inconsistency in U.S. policy leaves the State Department open to accusations of partisan politics and clear hostility towards the Fanmi Lavalas political party, still the most popular political group in Port-au-Prince’s poor neighborhoods, while at the same time raising questions about the efficacy of millions of dollars of aid funneled into the organization and the promotion of political parties now being excluded from the ballot.

Over the last two decades of U.S. and United Nations interventions in Haiti, a lot of speeches and statements have been made about building Haiti’s nascent democracy. “Elections alone don’t make democracy” has been a popular catch phrase. Why are the U.S. and UN insistent on moving forward with elections so clearly doomed to fail? U.S. policy in Haiti has focused on strengthening “opposition” parties to create a more pluralistic government. Without institution building, what good are dozens of political parties? Without civic education programs, who will support and vote for these politicians?

On the Ground In Haiti: An Excluded Population

In late November, President Preval announced the creation of a new political party called Unity. According to reports in the press, members of Preval’s former party, the Lespwa Coalition, who did not join Unity were among those excluded from the ballot by the CEP. In addition, some well-known leaders and current legislators converted to Unity when their own parties were not accepted by the Council. Candidates from the social democratic Fusion party, from Chavannes Jeune’s Union and from Mirlene Manigat’s RDNP are among those who have switched to Unity. Even former Fanmi Lavalas leaders from the two major metropolitan areas – Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince – have become Unity candidates, including Moise Jean-Charles of Milot and Saurel Francois in Port-au-Prince (see Haiti Liberte, December 2-8, 2009).

The CEP is a nine-member body and five of the current members were part of the Council in April 2009, the first time Fanmi Lavalas was excluded from the ballot. The CEP is being accused of partisan bias, but a larger and more fundamental problem is the fact that the Council is still provisional. According to Article 192 of Haiti’s Constitution, the Departmental Assemblies nominate three individuals each, and the executive, legislature and Supreme Court then chose the nine members of the Permanent Electoral Council from this pool. This is a measure towards decentralization because Departmental Assemblies are chosen by representatives called ASECs, who themselves are elected at the community level (see for an explanation of the ASEC system). According to the Constitution, the Permanent Electoral Council is an autonomous body that keeps the electoral machinery out of the hands of both the legislative and executive branches of the government.

The international community should exert pressure on the Government of Haiti to finally create a proper Permanent Electoral Council before moving forward with any elections, especially presidential elections scheduled for November 2010.

The fragmenting of political parties and willingness of candidates and legislators to shift their loyalty is also indicative of a larger problem. Political parties in Haiti lack clear vision and mission, they are often poorly organized, and few have a true base of popular support. In the countryside, national political parties may have name recognition, but most local candidates belong to regional political parties that are affiliated with national parties.

Only twenty years after an astounding show of popular participation in Haiti’s first democratic election, the majority of Haitians are disconnected if not indifferent when it comes to national elections. Some hope remains that participation will come from the bottom up because Haitians continue to be invested in elections of local-level officials with whom they have direct contact and a clearer sense of accountability. However, the isolation of the rural population and most secondary cities from the tumultuous partisan politics of Port-au-Prince and the lack of trickle down policy from Haiti’s Parliament over the last fifteen years has led to apathy towards the national legislative race.

Distortion of Reality

Political discourse and activity is centralized in what is often referred to as “the Republic of Port-au-Prince.” Mainstream reports give disproportionate voice to the urban population, particularly in the capital. Even with more than two million inhabitants, Port-au-Prince is not representative of the entire population of nearly ten million. The urban poor are mainly a transitional community of families forced to leave their homes in the countryside. The grinding poverty and environmental degradation that led them to migrate to the city are the most enduring crises facing Haiti today. As long as democracy remains a game for the few well-funded groups in the Republic of Port-au-Prince, it is at the grassroots level that truly sustainable development strategies are being pursued, without the assistance or attention of the international community.

A Fraudulent Election will Further Alienate Voters

For the last two decades, the U.S. policy towards Haiti’s democracy has been to focus funding and support on building pluralism through opposition political parties. In 2000, the international community, led by the U.S., condemned elections because the opposition felt the Provisional Electoral Council was biased and therefore excluded themselves from having candidates on the ballot. Today the same parties are being intentionally excluded by another Provisional Electoral Council, and the only difference is that Fanmi Lavalas – the controlling power in the government in 2000 – is now part of that opposition, and the U.S. is moving forward with plans to validate and recognize the elections.

Haiti will always be remembered for unparalleled popular participation in its first democratic elections in 1990. That shining moment represented the self-determination of millions of Haitians, but it only took eight months for the government to be ousted and that dream deferred. In the peaceful years since the restoration of democracy in 1994, precious little attention and funding has gone towards building the institutions and popular consciousness necessary for a true democratic movement. As a result, elections in February 2010 will not only be fraudulent because of political exclusion, but more importantly, the alienation of the majority of Haitians from the democratic process.

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