Haiti: The Stakes of the Post-Quake Elections*
By the International Crisis Group
Haiti votes in a month’s time – on 28 November 2010 – for a new president and nearly an entire legislature in perhaps the most important elections in its history. The government that emerges will need to manage a major part of the decade of recovery from the worst disaster ever in the Western Hemisphere. To do so, it requires the legitimacy that can only come from credible elections. But the historical obstacles – such as low turnout, suspicion of fraud and campaign violence – not only persist but have been greatly exacerbated by the 12 January earthquake that killed a quarter million people and left the capital in ruins and its government in disarray, as well as by the current outbreak of cholera. Polarising politics and a body organising the balloting that lacks full public confidence in its integrity add to the challenge. If the electoral process is to be as transparent, non-violent and widely participated in as it needs to be, the government must meet a higher standard than ever before, and the UN, regional organisations and donors like the U.S., Canada, the EU and Brazil must urgently press for this and expand support.
The task was daunting even before the earthquake destroyed infrastructure and created 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Three quarters of the population lived in poverty, most urban income earners relied on the informal economy, and the inequalities of the elite-dominated society were the most glaring in the hemisphere. The weak institutional infrastructure was reflected in the protracted makeshift status of the Provisional Electoral Council (Conseil Electoral Provisoire, CEP); a ramshackle political system featuring scores of parties unable to generate coherent policy choices for voters; an often corrupt judiciary and limited public security. Unresolved discord between the executive and opposition parties over the CEP’s composition and perceived bias in favour of outgoing President René Préval adds to the credibility challenge. All this lies at the root of a perpetual crisis of confidence in the electoral process. The tragic earthquake produced neither the change in the “all or nothing” style of politics nor the broad national consensus on reconstruction that would have eased the way to elections.
The parties and candidates, with international technical and financial assistance, are struggling to energise and enable 4.5 million citizens to vote, some who have lost their identification cards, and many of whom are among the IDPs living in spontaneous and insecure camps. Recovery has stalled at the relief stage, donors have been slow to make good many of their pledges, and what achievements there have been have not been well communicated to the victims, who have little confidence about what comes next. The threat of social unrest is thus real. While the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH), is a barrier to any major national disorder or direct attack on the electoral machinery, violent crime, including kidnapping, has risen in recent months, as gangs, some of whose members escaped jail during the quake, have reappeared. The fear of violence against candidates and campaign activities is palpable in parts of the country.
To boost confidence in the process, a great deal must be done in a very short time. The CEP’s actions need to be more open and those actions to be explained better to the parties and the electorate. The parties should commit to a peaceful campaign and to acceptance of the eventual results, and they and their candidates should begin to articulate substantive platforms that address national problems. To stimulate turnout, voter and civic education about the process and the stakes should be intensified, particularly among IDPs. The government and its international partners should accelerate the deployment of observers in far larger numbers than currently envisaged. And, of course, a climate of security must be maintained.
Once the elections are over and parallel to the new government’s priority task of pushing reconstruction and sustainable development, a national consensus will be needed on electoral and political party reforms. Donor financial and technical support will continue to be essential to carry these out. But the urgent requirement is to succeed with the November elections.
Reconstruction and political stability are mutually reinforcing, but the failure of either undermines the other. Haiti’s population needs to see significant steps in the next month, so that all eligible citizens can vote, their ballots are counted, and their choice of the next government accelerates a reconstruction that improves their lives and their families’ future. If the elections fail on these fronts, it is all too likely that stability will suffer, the investments the economy needs will dry up, and the humanitarian crisis will deepen. The government, the political parties and the international community must do all in their power to ensure such a scenario does not come to pass.
*SOURCE: Latin America/Caribbean Report N°35 www.crisisgroup.org