The news that the Haitian government decided to call off the electoral runoff between Jovenel Moïse, the so-called ‘banana man’ who was the hand-picked successor of current President Michel Martelly, and opposition candidate Jude Célestin – a confidant of former President René Preval – will surprise no-one.
Moïse and Célestin had finished first and second respectively in the presidential elections held on October 25 last year.
The Martelly government had seemingly been determined to hold the election come what may, and had been backed to do so by international stakeholders such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations and the United States government -which had spent some $33 million on ensuring ‘credible, inclusive and legitimate’ elections.
However, the Martelly adminstration came to the realization that running the election was not sustainable following sustained protests by opponents.
Some 2000 protestors had set up burning roadblocks in downtown Port-au-Prince, and targeted and destroyed polling stations in the capital and elsewhere, including Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haïtien.
Although finishing in second place in the first ballot and qualifying for the runoff, Célestin took the decision to boycott the runoff vote, arguing that it was rigged, and that Haiti was ‘moving towards a selection, not an election’.
A convoluted process
The run-off was supposed to be the culmination of a long electoral process that had begun in August 2015and which was complex in the extreme.
Haiti has been in electoral and legislative limbo for some time now. The country has held no local or legislative elections since President Martelly came to power in March 2011.
Consequently, the mandates of Haiti’s senators and deputies have expired, and Martelly has governed by decree since January 2015.
In the absence of elections and elected senators and deputies, he has been able to appoint who he likes to mayoral and municipal office.
In an effort to stave off increasing criticism, Martelly undertook to hold elections last year.
Voters were asked to choose from what The Guardian described as a ‘dizzying cast’ of candidates. The legislative elections for the Chamber of Deputies featured an incredible 1,621 candidates representing 128 parties, while the elections for one of the 20 seats in the Senate that were on offer saw 232 candidates.
The presidential election, meanwhile, featured 54 candidates on the ballot paper.
A briefing from the Haiti Support Group describes the election campaign as ‘lively’. The campaign had witnessed ‘nine armed confrontations, five killings, five attempted killings, nine people wounded by firearms, ten people wounded by knives and machetes, seventeen hit by stones, and ten severe beatings’.
Although the results of the October elections were endorsed by the OAS and the US (though not without some caveats), a report produced by the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, the National Council for Election Observation and the Haitian Council for Non-State Actors has alleged that they were subject to fraud on a vast scale.
According to a report by Frances Robles in the New York Times, Haitian human rights groups described the results of the October election as a ‘free-for-all’ which saw massive abuse of the electoral accreditation system.
Robles states that an incredible ‘900,000 accreditations were distributed’. Given that only 1.5 million people actually voted, this would mean that some 60 percent of the votes were actually cast by people working for political parties.
The most damning indictment of the 2015 elections came from the UK-based Haiti Support Group. They noted that the elections ‘resembled nothing more than a second-rate play performed by ham-actors, and played out before an empty theatre: political “parties” that are nothing more than an acronym atop a piece of grubby paper; “candidates” turning up to vote armed with assault rifles and their pockets bulging with bribe money’.
It is this sense of injustice that has fueled the latest protests against the Martelly government.
Same old, same old
No-one is quite sure what will happen next. This latest cancellation means that the run off has now been postponed three times.
Martelly is constitutionally required to leave office on February 7th. It is unclear whether he will stay on to oversee another election or whether an interim government will be established. As a former Martelly advisor told Michael Deibert, ‘Between now and 7 February we are on a razor’s edge and anything can happen’.
Haiti once again faces a colossal electoral mess and an uncertain future. Haiti’s democracy is, at best, extremely fragile and is quite possibly broken. As the International Crisis Group’s Mark Schneider observed, ‘In Haiti, foreboding is a permanent state of mind when it comes to elections’.
Whatever Celestin’s motives for boycotting the election (and he was excluded from the 2010 election because of supposed irregularities), his decision is indicative of the fundamental lack of faith that Haitian organizations and politicians have in the political system.
It does not help that none of the candidates seem to be particularly convincing, and most come with considerable ethical baggage. The economist Leslie Péan has observed that such is the cost of running a campaign that the only people who can afford to run for office are drug dealers and gangsters.
President Martelly, for example, has well-established links to the Duvalier dynasty which ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1986. Those links are exemplified by the appointment of known Duvalierists such as Nicolas Duvalier, David Bazile, Magalie Racine and Philippe Cinéas to positions of power within the administration.
It is also shown by his welcoming of former dictator Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier to Haiti after his twenty-five year long exile in Paris.
Michael Deibert points to the presence of such figures as the gangster Woodly ‘Sonson La Familia’ Ethéart and suspected drug trafficker Daniel Evinx among his circle and writes that Martelly has sometimes seemed ‘unsure if his place was among competent public officials or shady cronies both within and without the political arena’.
Not that Haiti’s political opposition is much better. Deibert writes that the opposition ‘consists of an assortment of career politicians, ideologically promiscuous opportunists and occasional true believers whose commitment to democracy is questionable’.
Behind the ‘Banana Man’
Nor is the other candidate Moïse a stranger to controversy.
A report on Upside Down World notes that Moïse’s Agritrans banana business seized 1,000 hectares from small farmers in the Trou-du-Nord area. In the process, the farmers had their homes and crops destroyed.
According to regional officials, the land was only leased to the peasant organizations and was, in fact, still owned by the state.
Agritans argues that the banana plantation that the company has developed (funded by state loans) has boosted the local economy and will create 3,000 jobs. While jobs have certainly been created – though not 3,000 – workers on the plantation are paid the minimum wage of 200 gourdes (about US$ 3 dollars), and work 15 hour shifts.
While Agritrans was within its rights to convert the land, Jennifer Vansteenkiste and Mark Schuller, writing for Counterpunch, note that the Agritrans project ‘represents a continuation of class division and exclusion of the poor majority’.
They continue: ‘What seems missing in this public-private partnership is the importance of a caring community, identity and belonging from working together to produce organizations that respect the needs and desires of the local population’.
Whither the international community?
In the eyes of many, the international community has failed in its efforts to foster political stability in Haiti.
The credibility of the US, in particular, is in tatters in the view of many Haitians who remember the support that America gave the Duvaliers and who also remember the role played by the US in ousting former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
It is revealing that in the lead up to the election, some 40 Haitian-American groups wrote to US Secretary of State John Kerry deploring what they described as ‘the unhelpful role [that] the State Department has been playing in Haiti’s electoral crisis’.
The Haiti Support Group, meanwhile, accuses Washington of having corrupted ‘virtually the whole of the Haitian political class’ and of having contributed to the ‘discrediting of the democratic process to such a point that the electorate would rather stay at home than legitimize it with their presence at the polling stations’.
Where Haiti goes from here isn’t entirely clear but it seems that the state of electoral paralysis is set to continue for a good while longer.