Written by Jake Johnston
Port-au-Prince, Haiti ― Under the leadership of an interim government since February, Haiti will now wait a little longer to elect a president after Hurricane Matthew struck the island, with 130 mile-per-hour winds and up to two feet of rain last week. Elections scheduled for October 9 have been put on hold, with Haiti’s provision electoral council (CEP) expected to announce a new date on Friday.
As the scale of the damage becomes clearer in Haiti’s rural Tiburon peninsula, where entire communities were left destroyed and under water, negotiations are ongoing in the relatively unscathed capital of Port-au-Prince, where political and economic power has long resided. Pressure is building on Haiti’s besieged interim president Jocelerme Privert to hold the elections in the coming weeks, but an internal assessment of electoral infrastructure obtained by Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch reveals massive damage to voting centers throughout the hardest-hit departments.
Some 30 percent of voting centers remained inaccessible in the most impacted areas according to the report compiled by the Organization of American States (OAS), while of those that were visited, 70 percent were rendered inoperable. The storm-ravaged departments are home to roughly one million of Haiti’s approximately 5.9 million registered voters. Across the country, meanwhile, the government estimates 1.4 million people to be in need of humanitarian assistance.
The CEP met with political parties Monday and has also met with representatives from the international community, Haitian civil society and the government this week. Mathias Pierre, a representative of Platfòm Pitit Dessalines, whose presidential candidate is former Senator Moïse Jean Charles, said that political parties had agreed on October 30 for the new date. But no official decision has been made, as the CEP continues to search for consensus.
According to multiple sources briefed on the situation, November 13 is the latest date where it would still be possible to maintain the existing electoral calendar and hand over of power in February. But it is unclear if even that will provide enough time to prepare, or satisfy the many political interests.
“If there are not elections by the end of October, we are ready to take to the street,” Roudy Chute, a representative from PHTK ― the party of former president Michel Martelly, whose candidate, Jovenel Moïse, came in first in last year’s discarded elections ― said in an interview earlier this week. “The people in power are not legitimate,” he continued. “They can’t negotiate with the international community.”
Senator Privert was selected to head an interim government in February 2016 when Martelly’s term expired after presidential elections in October 2015 were scrapped due to massive fraud and other irregularities. Given a 120-day mandate, Privert called for an investigation into the previous year’s elections. The commission recommended holding new presidential and partial legislative elections this October. The decision, however, was never fully accepted by political parties aligned with the former president, nor by some actors in the international community.
When Privert’s official mandate ended in June, a gridlocked parliament failed to act to either extend his term or replace him. Initiatives since then have faced stiff opposition; the government has been unable to adopt a budget. International donors also curtailed funding earlier this year.
In Jérémie, a coastal town in the Grand’Anse department where few structures remain intact after the storm, a local government official complained that aid from the government was not arriving fast enough, but then added, “How could it? It’s not a legitimate government.” But Privert has said the government is mobilizing what resources it can, telling reporters it has already spent some $400,000 and is working to coordinate various international actors to ensure the government remains in the lead of relief efforts and that goods are reaching those in need.
“Everyone agrees that the elections need to move forward and need to be completed, and that having a newly elected president in place will allow the government to deal [better] with the longer-term issues than having a provisional government in place,” US Ambassador Peter Mulrean told the Washington Post. But, he added, there must be a “balance between the political imperative to hold the elections as quickly as possible and what is technically feasible to run credible elections.”
Pierre Esperance of the National Human Rights Defense Network, whose organization observed last year’s elections, warned that it would be “impossible” to hold elections on October 30. In the three departments hardest hit it was unclear if the electoral apparatus would be ready, even by mid-November, he said. Looming in the future though is February 7, the constitutional date for a new ― elected ― president to take office. Terms for one-third of the Senate are also set to expire in early January.
The electoral infrastructure assessment obtained by HRRW raises significant questions as to whether the country can adequately prepare for elections in just a few short weeks, alongside a massive humanitarian response. In the South department, 112 of 157 voting centers were damaged and determined to be inoperable. In the Grand Anse and Nippes many voting centers remained inaccessible due to road blockages and flooding from the storm. Of those that could be visited, 88 percent and 54 percent, respectively, were damaged. The report added that impacted urban areas could also pose “security challenges.” Five Senate seats from these departments are to be decided in this election, as well as three seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
Still, the report stopped short of recommending a new date or estimating how long preparation might take. Rather, it urges electoral authorities, the government, and political parties to reach a consensus balancing political needs with voters’ access to the polls. Last year’s elections were plagued by low voter turnout and there is concern that rushing toward elections could further isolate rural areas that have long felt neglected by the so-called republic of Port-au-Prince.
With floodwaters sweeping away belongings, it is likely that many have lost identity cards necessary to vote. According to the government, some 175,000 people are still living in temporary shelters. The government has pledged to distribute new voter ID cards as fast as possible.
Rony Desroches, who heads a local observer organization, OCID, that receives funding from the US government, said that while many voting centers were damaged, it would still be possible to meet the February 7 deadline. “The government has to repair the voting centers, most of them are schools, and children must go to school.” He added that the government “could channel the assistance towards that.”
Chute, the PHTK representative, alleged that the government wanted to delay elections so that “the people forget Jovenel [Moïse].” While the electoral body cut off official campaigning last Friday, presidential candidates have fanned out over the country, delivering aid supplies throughout the impacted regions. Many candidates have branded relief supplies with their political logos. “Absolutely, it is to contrast with the [Haitian] government” that is seen as absent from many rural areas, Chute said. Political ploy or not, a barge with supplies from private sector actors supporting PHTK arrived in Jérémie earlier this week and was expected to continue along the coast, delivering goods to remote coastal towns that have yet to be reached by aid efforts.
Many of the dump trucks removing debris in Jérémie bore the PHTK logo next to that of V&F, one of the largest Haitian construction companies. But PHTK is far from the only party to take such steps. Jude Célestin, another of the top candidates and a former head of the national construction company, has said he is willing to rebuild a crucial bridge that connects the south to the rest of the country, and that was destroyed. His LAPEH party logo was also seen on construction vehicles in Jérémie. Dr. Maryse Narcisse, the presidential candidate of the Fanmi Lavalas party, has led food distributions as well. The CEP warned this week that political branding of supplies was a violation of the electoral decree, stating that assistance should be an act of “non-partisan solidarity.”
Residents in rural areas seem to have more immediate concerns than elections, after the storm destroyed upward of 90 percent of houses in some areas. On the road between Les Cayes and Jérémie, two of the larger cities that were hit, small villages have been left on their own. Throughout the mountainous pass, residents were seen picking up the pieces left behind by the hurricane, hammering old zinc sheeting back on to roofs, drying their belongings in the sun, and collecting what food they could from trees that were uprooted in the storm.
One group simply scoffed when asked about the elections. “We’re not even thinking about that now," a middle-aged man responded. In Jérémie, local authorities raced to provide medical treatment and supplies to understaffed and damaged hospitals that have been left without electricity. Cholera treatment supplies from Doctors Without Borders were unloaded off a boat and raced to a newly set up treatment center. The cholera epidemic, introduced by UN troops in October 2010, is expected to increase sharply in the coming weeks and months after floodwater mixed with sewage inundated communities. In some rural areas, there have already been significant increases in caseloads, stretching already limited capacities.
Some actors have accused the international community of pushing for a delay of the election in order to support the “humanitarian business” of disaster relief. Haitians have long-held suspicions of international relief efforts, feeling, most recently after the earthquake in 2010, that much of the promised aid never actually reaches the ground.
“Certainly [the international community is] pressuring in that direction, but one notes that we cannot cope with the humanitarian situation with a provisional government,” Desroches commented. If communications were handled properly, stressing the need for a legitimate president to oversee assistance efforts, “it might encourage people to vote,” he said about the possibility of an even lower turnout.
But there are also more simple concerns for parties pushing elections to be help rapidly; most are running out of money. After campaigning for much of the last two years, campaign funds are dwindling and private sector backers have been reluctant to provide additional resources.
A longer delay could also threaten Privert’s already tenuous hold on the government. An international official involved in the organization of elections believed the question of when to hold elections had become increasingly politicized. Opponents of the interim government could take advantage of the delay “to get rid of Privert,” the source added, making it more likely that every effort will be made to hold elections by November 13, in order to ensure the February 7 handover of power.
“We will strike in parliament, and we will strike in the street. There will be another crisis,” if elections are delayed too long, Chute said. “I’m pretty sure the international community doesn’t want that.” He noted that a longer delay would require a new political pact, and PHTK was not prepared to agree to that.
Speaking at the UN Security Council this week, the head of the UN mission that has been in Haiti for more than a decade, Sandra Honoré, said that the impact of the storm “on the political process and on stability in the country could only serve to reconfirm” the need for an extension of the troops’ mandate. A withdrawal had been expected after the elections.
Recent history shows how damaging a poorly organized election can be to long-term political stability. In November 2010, elections were held nine months after an earthquake killed hundreds of thousands and displaced over a million people. A month before the election, cholera was introduced and spread rapidly throughout the country and then, in early November, Hurricane Tomas swept across Haiti. Rather than delay the election, international backers and many in Haiti urged the process to continue at all costs.
The elections were plagued by such a high level of irregularities that it was statistically impossible to determine a winner. Instead of rerunning the elections, a US-backed mission from the OAS came to Haiti to analyze the vote and recommended an arbitrary change in the official results ― a recommendation backed by threats from Washington to cut desperately needed humanitarian relief funds. Michel Martelly was moved to the second round, which he won handily, but many political actors never recognized his legitimacy, and the parliament was barely functional over his five years in power. No elections were held for four years, and eventually the parliament’s terms expired. Martelly ruled by decree for his last year in office, eventually leading to the aborted elections of last year.
“The CEP needs to be very careful regarding the date because it is important to organize a good election,” Esperance said, warning that if they don’t go well it would provide a pretext for parties to contest the results. He recognized the importance of holding elections as soon as possible, but believed that further evaluation must be done by the CEP to determine how long it will take. “It looks like political interests are being put over the needs of the people,” he added.