Today, elections are being held in Haiti. The country’s electoral authority, the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP by its French initials), has approved 19 presidential candidacies and 950 legislative candidacies. Though this may seem like a lot, a number of other candidates were barred from running by the CEP without real justification, including the list of parliamentary candidates presented by Haiti’s largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas.
The U.S. and Organization of American States (OAS) criticized the unwarranted exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas from the 2009 legislative elections, though they still ended up endorsing the election results. This time around, neither the U.S., nor OAS, nor any other major international actor has denounced the CEP’s decision to exclude candidates, though U.S. members of Congress and a number of civil society organizations have done so.
The residents of tent communities that we have talked to during our stay in Port-au-Prince have expressed additional complaints about the elections. Many are outraged at being asked to go out and vote when they are without real shelter and have little or no access to basic services. Others insist that the priority should be dealing with the out-of-control cholera epidemic. Almost all the camp dwellers we speak to agree that none of the candidates have presented real proposals to help the country get back on its feet. Very few have expressed an intention to participate in the elections.
In addition to the residents of camps, we have had meetings with a number of progressive Haitian intellectuals and activists that work closely with grassroots neighborhood organizations and rural social movements. In many cases, their words echo those of the residents of the camps we’ve visited in Cité Soleil, Chanmars, Karidou, and elsewhere.
Patrick Elie, a biochemist and former minister of Security to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is currently an advisor to President Preval, but this doesn’t prevent him from speaking his mind very frankly.
“After the earthquake,” he says, “there was an important grassroots response […] Hundreds of neighborhood committees were formed.” But these have been systematically ignored by the country’s political movements and by the current electoral candidates.
“We are heading toward a senseless election,” Elie says, “with no real content except personal ambition.”
“We will end up with a regime without a modicum of legitimacy…” and, as a result, “the big contractors” of the relief agencies will be facing “a very fragile regime” and a legislative branch that is totally hostile to the executive branch.
“Popular participation will be low”, Elie predicts. “And even lower if we have to go to a second round”, which appears to be the most likely scenario given that none of the presidential candidates has widespread popular appeal.
Elie, like many others, felt that the elections should be postponed, and made that suggestion to President Preval early on, long before the added complication of the cholera epidemic. It was important to have a “real, participatory debate” on the future of the country before holding the elections. With the many crises the country has been facing, this has been impossible to do.
We also speak to representatives of the national peasant organization Tet Kolé. “We’re having elections and still have bodies trapped under the debris,” one of the organization’s leaders reminds us. “People are still living in the streets. And now an endemic has turned into a pandemic. It’s on the bones and bodies of cholera that these elections are being organized.”
As a result, the organization won’t participate in the elections. “We won’t participate in elections; they’re not in our interest. […] We believe in a participatory election that will respond to the needs of the masses.”
Cantave Jean-Baptiste, an agronomist who has worked for over thirty years with the peasant organizations of the fertile Artibonide valley agrees with the assessment of Elie. “The new government will be weak and a weak government cannot improve our situation…”
Farmers, who make up 2/3 of the Haitian work force, were generally not provided with any substantive information on candidates and political parties. “Many leaders appear only for the elections. People don’t really know them and don’t know their programs.”
For Cantave, cholera and the elections don’t mix. He has noticed in his trips through rural areas that people are, understandably, avoiding congregating in public places, whether markets, churches or public spaces. Logically, they will do the same with regard to voting places.
Furthermore, the elections are diverting energies and resources from the fight against cholera. “The elections,” says Cantave, “are deeply affecting the efforts to provide support [for the fight against cholera] in the rural areas and even in the cities (…) Because of these elections, more people will die…”
This assessment seems to reflect what a MINUSTAH representative told us a few days ago when he told us that, because of the elections, there will be a spike in cholera infections over the next two weeks.
Camille Chalmers, Executive Director of the Platform to Advocate Alternative Policy, also has a pessimistic assessment of the impact of the elections. In his opinion they “are not helping but aggravating the crisis.”
He notes that the Haitian state is extraordinarily weak and has been almost entirely absent during the relief efforts following the earthquake. Yet, “the state is omnipresent when it comes to elections. […] People in the camps are clearly saying: ‘we want homes before elections’.”
“Not only does the electoral reality not reflect people’s lives, but it was built upon exclusion. Fourteen parties were excluded from the elections including Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular party in Haiti.”
In any case, why have a president, asks Chalmers, “if he is only there to rubberstamp the decisions of an interim commission […] On top of the military occupation we now have the economic, social and political occupation by the interim commission. […] How we can have elections when Haiti’s national sovereignty has disappeared?”
He notes that foreign military forces [the MINUSTAH] are also coordinating and organizing elections.
Chalmers explains that his platform of grassroots organizations has decided to denounce the elections “as an expensive and useless exercise; an insult to the dignity of the people of Haiti…”