USIP panelists say that, while elections may need to be held, as in the case of long-delayed senate and local elections, more effective pressure and support should be exerted to produce lasting, legitimate results.

 

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Haiti’s election conundrum, with the frequency of balloting surpassed only by the intensity of infighting over the process, may boil down to this: a necessary evil.

Panelists at a discussion hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) entitled “Can Elections Save Haiti?” bemoaned the flaws and self-dealing that erode the ability of Haitians to truly express their will. While elections may need to be held, as in the case of senate and local elections that already have been postponed for more than a year, more effective pressure and support should be exerted to produce lasting, legitimate results, they said.

“If elections are going to save Haiti, then things have to be done in a very different way,” said Jonathan Katz, a former Associated Press correspondent in Haiti who lived there for four years and wrote a book on the “disaster” of foreign assistance in the aftermath of the country’s devastating January 2010 earthquake. Since the U.S. and other outsiders will impose their will anyway, they should do so in a way that accomplishes what the Haitian people want, Katz said.

In a 2007 speech, then-President Rene Preval called his country’s constitution, adopted in 1987, "the single greatest threat to Haiti’s long-term stability." The unorthodox statement was intended to draw attention to the document’s unwieldy complexity and ambiguity as one of the root causes of the Caribbean nation’s perpetual instability. Among the factors weighing on Haiti’s development is the constitution’s requirement for yearly elections of one sort or another, even as its executive and legislative branches are beset by infighting in the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation.

“Over the years, Haiti has lurched from one election crisis to another election crisis,” Robert Perito, the director of USIP’s Center of Innovation for Security Sector Governance, told the audience. “Again, we are faced with the question, `Can elections save Haiti.’ Or is there a way to shift the focus away from contests for office to provision of good governance?”

USIP’s Haiti program started in February 2006 with a panel discussion on the contested election of Preval and broadened over the years to projects in the field training community activists, members of parliament and government officials in peaceful conflict resolution. The Institute also has run programs on reducing gender-based violence, updating Haiti’s legal code and the United Nations effort to crack down on gangs in the capital Port-au-Prince.

Thomas Adams, the U.S. State Department’s special coordinator for Haiti, told the USIP audience this week that the Caribbean nation has made some progress in governance in the past two years with constitutional amendments to strengthen rule of law, the naming of a prime minister and the appointment of more women to the Cabinet and other government positions.

Haitian senatorial and local elections that were due in late 2011 and early 2012 have been delayed “far too long,” Adams said. The international community, which provides aid that accounts for 60 percent of Haiti’s budget, has been pressing “with slightly firmer voice recently” to hold the votes before the end of this year.

“Haiti will lose international support if it is seen as undemocratic” and doesn’t address corruption and human rights violations, Adams said. “Haitians really need to hold their public officials accountable through elections.”

But since the 1986 fall of the three-decade dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and his father Francois “Papa Doc” who preceded him, “only two interim governments carried out elections within the required time,” said Raymond Joseph, a former ambassador of Haiti to the U.S. who recently founded a nonprofit environmental group focusing on reversing the deforestation of Haiti.

Private investors need more confidence in the stability of Haiti’s government before they make the long-term commitments needed for economic development, said Mark Schneider, senior vice president at the International Crisis Group, which released a report in February on “Governing Haiti: Time for National Consensus.”

Some fear that current President Michel Martelly might delay elections so long that the senate would lose another third of its members when their terms expire early next year, leaving him to rule by decree. Political forces also have continued to use violence to serve their own interests, Schneider said.

“If that occurs, the remaining international commitment to Haiti’s recovery is likely to whither,” Schneider said. “Elections cannot save Haiti. However, the failure to hold elections will doom Haiti to permanent failed-state status and its people to undeserved misery .”

About 78 percent of Haitians are forced to try to make ends meet on $2 a day or less, said Robert Maguire, director of Latin American and Hemispheric Studies at George Washington University and a former senior fellow at USIP. Elections and the naming of the commission that is supposed to run them has been “problematic” since the constitution was adopted, and a popularly elected leader has twice been forced from office, he said. “Elections seem to have brought out the worst in Haiti’s politicians and leaders,” Maguire said. “Haiti’s people have seen that elections seem not to have much of an effect on improving their lives.”

The speakers ticked off repeated cases of manipulation of the process for appointing a permanent electoral council to oversee elections, as called for in the constitution, and the frequent power struggles among the elite for the presidency and seats in government and the parliament. Katz cited author and scholar Robert Fatton’s reference to Haiti’s “predatory democracy,” in which those with wealth and privilege exploit the trappings of elections and parliamentary procedures to perpetuate their own power.

U.S. officials “often have a very, almost-fetishized view of the importance of elections as acts, but aren’t always quite as concerned about the way in which those elections are conducted,” Katz said. The contentious November 2010 election occurred even as the country was still recovering from the earthquake. Voter registration cards weren’t being properly printed and distributed, voter rolls still contained the names of people who’d died in the quake, and polling places had been destroyed, he said.

“It was very clearly going to be a mess,” said Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. “But there was an insistence on the part of the international community that the elections be held on time.”

Some Haitians agreed on the need for elections, fearing that Preval might cancel the vote and declare himself president for life. But the biggest push came from the U.S., the Organization of American States, and elsewhere outside of Haiti, Katz said.

Generally “there are way too many ideas that come to Haiti from the outside…. They’re not the same ideas that people who actually live in the country and have to live the day-to-day realities would come up with.”

Adams said a goal of smooth-running elections as a regular feature of Haitian civic life is “attainable.”

“This election offers an opportunity for significant progress in that regard,” Adams said. “This is going to be an extremely complex election to hold, but it’s important to do so.”

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