By Emma Fawcett*
Postponement of Haiti’s protracted electoral process has triggered a seemingly existential crisis. The January 24 vote, a runoff to select a president, was postponed indefinitely in the face of violent protests challenging the legitimacy of the first round in October. Those elections trimmed the field of 54 presidential candidates down to two: President Martelly’s hand-picked successor, banana exporter Jovenel Moïse, and opposition candidate Jude Célestin. While that round was mostly peaceful and the vote tallies were upheld by most outside observers (including the OAS), Haitian human rights groups and dissidents cited widespread cases of fraud and other irregularities. Célestin disputed the count and boycotted the runoff, which he says Martelly rigged to install Moïse. Martelly has dismissed the accusations, and the embattled Provisional Electoral Council has been unable to assuage the opposition alliance’s concerns. Last week’s postponement of the runoff was the second, but the clock is ticking louder now because Martelly is scheduled to, and reaffirmed his intent to, step down on February 7.
- The postponement triggered international pleas for a speedy resolution. The U.S. State Department condemned “electoral intimidation, destruction of property, and violence”; while the OAS, the UN, and the EU all issued calls for Haitians to come together to end the crisis.
International efforts to foster elections as a means of laying groundwork for political and economic stability in Haiti have repeatedly stumbled, even when stretching the rules to accommodate Haitian reality. The OAS and the State Department intervened on Martelly’s behalf in the 2011 election by pushing him into the runoff and asking opponents to stand down. In addition to providing up to $4 billion dollars in economic and reconstruction aid, the United States has since spent more than $30 million on the elections, and continued to push for them to go ahead as recently as January 21. But these efforts have backfired, as members of opposition parties, the Haitian private sector, and the Catholic Church regard the electoral process as illegitimate and increasingly resent what they feel is U.S. interference. The political crisis also jeopardizes economic development that Washington has encouraged. Royal Caribbean, a cruise line that leases a recreational area on Haiti’s northern coast, skipped its port call in Labadie several times over the past week because small boats of protesters approached its ships. Protesters also threw rocks at the windows of the new Marriott hotel in Port-au-Prince.
Haitian democracy is – yet again – at a perilous juncture. Martelly’s departure from office on February 7 will be disruptive, but his strong-arm tactics and entourage of shady characters threatened a peaceful transition of power anyway. (His critics point out that an extension of his term in office is what he has sought all along.) U.S. officials have spoken publicly of a transitional government emerging, but selecting one and imbuing it with credibility will be a massive task. Business leaders have proposed that a “consensus” prime minister head an interim government for six months, during which a new Electoral Council would coordinate new elections, but the negotiations lack transparency. If the government, the protesters, and the business community are unable to reach an agreement – as seems likely at this point – Haiti will face a power vacuum with increased violence that will be even more difficult to resolve.
January 28, 2016
*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University. Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.