By JACQUELINE CHARLES, The Miami Herald
As Haiti struggles with recovery, its leaders and the international community attempt to address elections.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Along the hardened edges of a sprawling public plaza-turned survivors camp, children run through cascading water, women wash clothes and Elusner Marcellus, 31, is thinking about making it through another day. The last thing on his mind are elections.
“A people who is hungry, who is living in misery can’t think about going to elections,” said the disillusioned street vendor.
But not far from Champs de Mars in the tony hills of Petionville, Haiti’s yet-to-be-scheduled elections are the topic du jour as more than a dozen of this country’s most powerful businesspeople spend the day discussing how to keep politics from derailing the earthquake-battered nation’s slow recovery.
That parallel universe is the dilemma facing Haitian President René Préval and the international community as Haiti prepares to be without a functioning parliament after most members’ terms run out on Monday, and attentions are divided between day-to-day survival and political reality.
“I understand we are in a difficult situation where people are not thinking about elections, but it’s also clear that the democratic process has to continue,” Préval said last week. “We cannot leave the country without a parliament. We cannot leave the country without mayors. We cannot leave the country without a president.”
So concerned that a new tremor could cause further destabilization, Haiti’s partners — among them the United States, Canada, the Organization of American States and the United Nations — have all dispatched top lieutenants here for a Monday meeting with Préval.
“You have to send the right signals out there to be able to have a stable democratic process because that will enable you to do your economic development; it will enable you to do as well your social development,” Canada’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon told The Miami Herald during a visit here last week. “Ultimately, we are asking people to come in here. . . . If that environment is perceived to be unstable, obviously there is going to be enormous reticent to doing something.”
Last week, Haiti’s lower chamber voted in favor of allowing Préval to remain until May 14, 2011 — five years to the date he assumed power — should his successor not be elected by Feb. 7. The senate is expected to vote Monday, and Préval spent Saturday meeting with key senators in hopes of getting their support.
As of Monday, Haiti’s parliament will cease to exist as a law-making body because the mandate of the entire lower chamber of deputies, and one-third or 10 senators would have expired — preventing the passage of critical laws.
With that new reality facing Haiti, Préval’s opponents have criticized his request, calling it a power grab. They’ve demanded that he leave on Feb. 7, the date scheduled for the inauguration of a new president and that an interim government be installed to organize elections for all 144 mayors, 99 deputies, 11 senators and president.
“We have an opposition that doesn’t want stability,” said Sen. Moise Jean-Charles, a Préval supporter. “It’s just a matter of formality.”
The United States and others are all opposed to an interim government, fearing that it could create instability or uncertainty. Monday’s discussions, which will include U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills; OAS Assistant Secretary General Albert Ramdin and CARICOM Assistant Secretary General Colin Granderson will focus on how to avoid an interim government. They’ll discuss a yet-to-be publicized UN report that found elections are possible “technically, logistically and financially,” but there are things Préval must do to kick-start the process.
Among them: set a date, decide the types of elections — presidential, legislative and/or local elections — to organize, address problems with the country’s embattled nine-member Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) and decide whether to pursue constitutional reform.
From the moment the 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti, the country’s election timetable and a push by Préval to reform parts of the Haitian constitution — including giving Haitian Americans dual nationality — were upended.
Two weeks of rare political unity was quickly replaced by bickering.
“There are a number of reasons why elections cannot be held this year,” said Evans Paul, a longtime opposition leader. He cites challenges with the electoral list, which would need to be updated to account for the dead and displaced. He also questions justifying spending $44 million — the U.N. estimate — at a time when Haitians are living in hundreds of tent cities.
And then there is the matter of Préval.
“President Préval has shown that he’s a specialist in organizing bad elections and we don’t trust him to organize elections,” said Paul, referring to last year’s controversial parliamentary elections that increased Préval’s majority in parliament. “Yes, we are victims of a natural disaster, but we cannot let a political disaster destroy us.”
That refusal to let Préval organize elections has some opposition leaders calling for a mass demonstration before the presidential palace Monday, demanding he resign immediately.
“This president is incapable of resolving any of the problems in Haiti,” said Garaudy Laguerre, a member of the opposition.
As a splintered group, Haiti’s opposition faces its own challenges including mistrust of each other. Préval himself demonstrated its fragility when he launched a new political platform, Inité, or Unity, prior to the quake and it included several of his political foes.
In order to preserve the confidence of the electoral process and avoid instability, Préval is being urged to consult with opponents to build a consensus. He also must address issues with the troubled CEP, which he’s been reluctant to replace.
The group’s credibility has come under fire from political groups and the international community after it barred Haiti’s largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, from participating in the postponed Feb. 28 elections. Also one of the members is under investigation for embezzlement.
CEP President Gaillot Dorsinvil said the council is “prepared to do elections. Good elections, not so-so elections.”
But to do them, it would need 120 days.
Elections are possible, he said, even though its main offices were damanged, the U.N. elections expert was killed in the quake, 47 percent of voting bureaus are destroyed and the electoral list needs major updating.
Even before the quake, the National Office of Identification (ONI) still had 300,000 voters registration cards it had yet to hand out since 2006, raising questions on its ability to identify an estimated 1.2 million voters, UN officials say, who are either dead, displaced or have lost their voters card.
“The challenges are enormous,” said Dorsinvil. “There needs to be a sit-down with all of the sectors in the society.”
But even if the experts work out the logistics to hold elections by the end of the year, Préval concedes it will not be easy in a country where past elections have resulted in boycotts, and violence.
“Today I’m not sure everyone wants elections because I hear they are saying the president needs to go,” Préval told The Miami Herald on Sunday. “We have an explosive situation because the people are suffering.”
Already, his supporters believe forces are at work to destabilize his government amid increasing street protests demanding his resignation, rumors of pending gas crisis, and arson at a popular market last month.
“We are asking the Haitian people to understand one thing clearly. It’s not in instability or in chaos that their situation will improve,” Préval said, recalling the progress Haiti had made before Jan. 12 as investors and Haitians abroad viewed the country through lenses of hope , and Haitians here went out without fear of kidnappings.
“Then Jan. 12 changed the dynamics,” Préval said. “It’s a situation that is extremely difficult. . . . The Haitian people should not let themselves be used to allow this situation to once again become difficult.”