The devastating passage of hurricane Matthew has changed the dynamics of the upcoming election in Haiti. Following last year’s fraudulent elections, the new electoral council has been making changes in order to produce a more legitimate outcome this year, but the hurricane has raised new concerns.
A significant number of voting centers in the affected area have been destroyed or damaged. Many are also being used as temporary shelters. Efforts have been ongoing to repair or set up tents to replace voting centers, and the electoral council has stated that 80 percent of damaged voting centers have been repaired, and that all are able to be reached. However, the true test will come Sunday.
Additionally, many communities remain almost completely out of contact and unable to be reached. Electoral materials have been distributed throughout the country, but there is a high probability of delays on Sunday morning in some hard-to-reach areas. Damage to infrastructure, and ongoing flooding in parts of the country could also dissuade voters from going to the polls. Turnout ― which has already reached abysmal levels in recent elections ― will be a key indicator.
Many voters also lost their identity cards in the storm. Though it is unclear how many Haitians were impacted, and the government has pledged to provide new cards to those in need, the full scale of the problem is still unknown. The government agency responsible for providing the ID cards said last week that only 2,000 new cards have been requested, indicating that many may simply be dealing with basic necessities like having a roof over one’s head or securing food, rather than voting. This has created uncertainty around the ability of Haitians in the southern peninsula to exercise their democratic rights.
Beyond the technical problems that have been created by the hurricane, there are severe humanitarian issues. Hundreds of thousands across the southern peninsula have been left with no homes, no crops and no safe water. Relief efforts are ongoing, but have been inadequate to address the many needs. Is it simply too soon to ask the Haitian people most impacted by this storm to think about an election?
Between 10 and 15 percent of registered voters reside in the storm-ravaged southern peninsula, and many more in the northern departments that have more recently been affected by heavy rains and flooding. It is clear the election in these areas will be significantly impacted, and many will be disenfranchised. It’s also possible that with lower turnout in more rural provinces, it will be, more than ever, Port-au-Prince determining who the next president will be.
This is likely to reinforce centralization in the “republic of Port-au-Prince”, further isolating rural provinces and towns that have long felt disconnected from the political and economic elite in the country’s capital.
Though the results of last year’s election were tainted by widespread irregularities, they do provide some indication of where candidates had the strongest support. The PHTK’s Jovenel Moise was weakest in the West and South-East departments and strongest in the northern departments as well as the Grand Anse and South. Those are the areas that have been the most impacted by the hurricane and subsequent flooding, potentially decreasing the PHTK’s vote share. On the flip side, both Pitit Dessalines and Fanmi Lavalas did comparatively well in the West department, especially in Port-au-Prince.
With the elections taking place during a time of scarcity and great need, there is also the potential for vote buying and voter coercion to take on an even larger role. In some areas, local politicians running for office may actually be in control of much needed relief supplies, making the population believe that voting for them is the best way to ensure access to goods. It has also created a larger market for more direct forms of vote buying.
The ability of the police to ensure a calm and safe voting environment, in the context of the ongoing humanitarian crisis, is also a big question heading into this weekend. Earlier this week, the United Nations signed a security plan with the Haitian National Police. There will be around 13,000 security personnel from both institutions deployed across the country.
There is, of course, a tremendous need to hold an election and move again toward an elected government, however there are also serious risks with moving ahead when the country is not prepared for an election. The 2010 election, which took place in in the midst of the aftermath of the earthquake and the cholera epidemic, provides a warning. That election was so flawed that it failed to produce a legitimate president, leading to five years of political instability and the current electoral impasse Haiti finds itself in. Elections are not a panacea, and poorly run elections can do lasting damage to a democracy.
Though all parties appear to be supporting the current process, one concern is that the issues likely to arise due to storm damage will give political actors a pretext to contest the results, regardless of how voting goes on Sunday. As reports are gathered from across the country, the risk of violence and other voting disruptions is likely to grow throughout the day.
Finally, though improvements have been made in terms of rural access and infrastructure since the passage of Hurricane Matthew, rains continue to fall across the country, causing new flooding and likely new problems ahead of the election. The forecast for this weekend: more rain.