Interim President Jocelerme Privert has announced his intention to move forward with the creation of an electoral verification commission. But the commission faces significant pushback from both international actors who provide the bulk of the funding for Haiti’s elections and Haitian politicians connected to former president Michel Martelly.
Responding to the “unanimous expression” of civil society and political leaders, Privert declared on Monday that a new round of consultations would be held this week, aimed at establishing common terms of reference and identifying potential members for a verification commission. The body, which has yet to be formally organized, would be tasked with reviewing previous election results and electoral court decisions before moving forward with the as-yet-unfinished electoral process. A verification process is necessary, Privert said, to establish confidence and encourage “players to trust the [electoral council] and to participate in the upcoming elections.”
Political and civil society leaders have long demanded a verification commission, after earlier elections in 2015 were marred by violence and widespread reports of fraud. Official results from the first round of voting put then-President Martelly’s handpicked successor, Jovenel Moise, in first place, followed by Jude Celestin in second place. Celestin joined with other opposition candidates, demanding a verification and other changes to the electoral system before agreeing to participate in a runoff. On April 6, the coordinator of Celestin’s party LAPEH told the Haitian press that they would not participate in any second-round election without a verification commission first being established.
In response to Privert’s announcement of the commission, supporters of Moise have taken to the streets to denounce the move. They argue that the process will be used as a smokescreen to remove their candidate from the race. Moise’s hostility to a verification is shared by the U.S., the European Union and United Nations, all of which have come out against the verification commission and have urged Haitian authorities to complete the electoral process as soon as possible. “That’s one reason why the U.S. did not want to hear about verification … they know it will create fears” among Martelly’s supporters, an international official involved in the electoral process told me last week. Last week, some 60 leaders and organizations in the Haitian diaspora wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging the U.S. to support a verification.
“We believe … a new assessment, or even verification, is not necessary,” U.S. Ambassador Peter F. Mulrean told the Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste last week, adding that additional financing for Haiti’s electoral process would be reassessed after seeing how the question of a verification commission was answered. “The last card to avoid a verification: no money,” said the international official. International donors have also withheld budget support from financial institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank.
The stance of the international powers leaves many in Haiti puzzled. Pierre Esperance, the director of a prominent human rights organization and head of a local electoral observation mission team, wondered, “how can Haiti go to the second round without a verification?” Trying to push forward without a verification is likely to lead to a repeat of the street protests that rocked the capital almost daily in late 2015 and early 2016, and that contributed to the election’s cancellation in the first place.
“The verification process must take place. There is an awful lot of suspicions that there was fraud in that election process, and it would not suit any government that is elected without a verification process because there would always be that suspicion,” Sir Ronald Sanders, an Antiguan diplomat, told the Miami Herald last week.
Sanders led an Organization of American States (OAS) mission to Haiti that helped broker the political accord in early February, though he made it clear he was not speaking on behalf of the organization. In 2010, a similar OAS special mission had overturned the election results, putting Martelly into the second round and eventually the presidency.
“If we go ahead and force Privert to hold elections without it, an election that is not ultimately acceptable to the majority of Haitians, we are courting trouble,” Sanders added. “We are going to let a possibly fraud process deliver a government? In which country would we accept that? Can you tell us the U.S. would allow that? The English-speaking Caribbean?”
Ambassador Mulrean has tried to reassure skeptics by arguing that Haiti’s elections have already been verified by an evaluation commission appointed by Martelly in late December, making a second verification unnecessary. Yet the conclusions of the report were hardly reassuring: accreditations passes had been used to cast multiple fraudulent votes and some 50 percent of voting booth tally sheets contained what the commission deemed “grave irregularities,” including missing voter signatures and identification and evidence of tampering.
The commission called for a further examination of the records and warned that accepting the outcomes of “elections tarnished by major irregularities would further aggravate the political crisis and instability of the country.” But before the recommendations could be adopted, Martelly issued a decree scheduling the final round of elections for January 2016. That date was also indefinitely postponed and a political agreement designed to fill the constitutional void was signed on Martelly’s way out of office, which resulted in Privert becoming provisional president.
Rony Desroches, the head of a local election observation mission primarily funded by the U.S. and Canada was a member of that initial commission. “We did not have enough time to determine if the results were acceptable,” he told me during an interview in early February. He anticipated a further investigation would be necessary before elections could be held. “We asked for an investigation two days after the October 25 election,” Pierre Esperance noted. The international community resisted at the time, but now, “they can’t say, ‘we were wrong.’”
Esperance’s organization, along with a number of other prominent civil society organizations have put forth their recommendations for what the verification commission should be tasked with doing and a timeline for achieving the completion of the elections. The groups believe the conditions will not be in place to do so until the end of 2016, with a new government taking office in February 2017. Yet such a long timetable would require either a new political agreement or an extension of Privert’s term past its May 14 expiry date, something the Martelly-aligned legislature is not likely to grant.
Behind closed doors, according to the international elections official, it was becoming increasingly clear that a verification would take place, with the terms of reference being the main sticking point. Given their stance throughout Haiti’s electoral crisis, the international powers in Haiti can be expected to fight for the verification process to be as quick and as superficial as possible.
“If you need a verification commission, have it and do it quickly,” U.S. State Department Special Coordinator Ken Merten explained yesterday, reacting to the new reality on the ground. “If this verification commission takes time … it will force us to reconsider the support we give to elections.”