After increasing pressure from opposition politicians, human rights organizations, religious leaders and diaspora organizations, Haitian president Michel Martelly has issued a decree forming a commission to evaluate the recent first-round presidential elections, held in October. Backed by the international community, the move is a last-ditch effort to save the December 27 run-off election.
Consisting of five individuals who were named in the presidential decree, the body will have three days to carry out its work and make recommendations to the electoral council and government. The election, set to be held next weekend, is expected to be delayed until January 2016, though no formal announcement has been made.
Contacted by HRRW, Rosny Desroches, a leader of a local observation group funded by the U.S. and Canada and a member of the commission, said that the exact terms of reference were still being debated and the commission likely wouldn’t get started until Friday or Saturday. Specifically, there was still debate about the time frame, as three days seemed too short, he said. “The main idea is to improve the process so that what happened on the 25th [of October] will not be repeated,” Desroches added.
The October election, in which 70 percent of registered voters stayed home, was plagued by widespread fraud and other irregularities according to local and international observer groups. Following the election, a group of eight presidential candidates, known as the G8, questioned the legitimacy of the results and demanded an independent verification commission to analyze the votes.
Martelly has been ruling by decree since January 2015, when the terms of most of the legislative branch expired. On Wednesday, the 10 remaining Senators wrote to Martelly and the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) requesting a suspension of the electoral process and the formation of a verification commission. Shortly after midnight, Prime Minister Evans Paul sent a letter to Martelly requesting a commission with a more limited scope, setting the stage for this morning’s announcement.
As momentum built over the previous week, even those close to the government acknowledged that something would have to be done. “You can’t stop a runaway train,” an advisor to President Martelly quipped, “It’s inevitable.”
But asked if this commission satisfied the request of the Senate, Jocelerme Privert, one of the 10 who remain, wrote curtly, “No way.” And already, there has been pushback to the commission from within the G8.
In a statement this morning, Renmen Ayiti, whose presidential candidate Jean Henry Céant is part of the G8, denounced the commission as “contrary to the request” of the G8. The party also called on one of its members, Euvonie Georges Auguste, who had been placed on the commission, to not participate.
Other commission members are Patrick Aris of the Episcopal Conference of Haiti; former Port-au-Prince Mayor Joseph Emmanuel Charlemagne; and Anthony Pascal, a journalist and TV personality.
Moïse Jean Charles, another member of the G8 who finished third according to official results, also expressed concerns over the new commission. It “doesn’t look to be shaping up like what we’ve been asking for,” he said. “What we demand is an independent commission that won’t be biased toward anyone,” he added, pointing out that it appeared some commission members were close associates of Martelly.
But key among the group is Jude Célestin, who placed second according to official results behind Jovenel Moïse of the ruling party. Despite increasing pressure from the international community, he has held firm on conditioning his participation in the second round on the formation of a verification commission.
Célestin ran for the presidency in 2010 but was removed from the race after an internationally backed verification mission suggested he really came in third. That decision, which was accepted only after the revocation of visas and other pressure from the U.S., paved the way for Martelly’s ascension to the presidency.
Now, the international community finds itself on the other side of the equation, needing Célestin to participate in order for the election to have legitimacy. U.S. State Department Haiti Special Coordinator Kenneth Merten, who was the U.S. Ambassador during the 2010 election, was dispatched to Haiti in early December to meet with the stakeholders and reach a deal that would allow Célestin to participate and the process to continue on schedule.
The international community has balked at the prospect of a verification commission, as demanded by the G8, thinking that it would be too time consuming and threaten the handover of power on February 7, when Martelly’s term expires. A verification commission could also end up excluding the ruling-party candidate, opening the door to the runoff for Moïse Jean-Charles, “whom they dread,” as a source told Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste last week. Jean-Charles, a former senator, has been an outspoken critic of Martelly and has been associated with Fanmi Lavalas, the party of twice-ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Instead, Merten presented a different proposal: a “commission of guarantee” to make improvements and ensure a better-run election for the second round. The commission announced today is broadly in line with this proposal. The commission has just 72 hours to operate, and the decree gives both candidates who have secured a spot in the second round an opportunity to participate in the process, indicating that the commission’s work will not impact the results.
Desroches confirmed that the “goal” of the commission is not so much to look backwards, but to improve the process going forward.
The commission will also receive technical assistance from the European Union and the Organization of American states, both of which have signed off on the elections despite the reports of massive fraud from local observers.
“Anything that brings transparency and moves the process forward is a good thing,” Merten commented to HRRW this morning, adding that he had yet to see the specifics of the commission. “Hopefully this gives Jude the confidence to engage in the process and feels that this will provide a level playing field” for the second round, he said. Merten met with Célestin during his trip to Haiti.
But the G8 already rejected proposals for the watered-down commission earlier this week. In a separate letter to the electoral council released Tuesday, Célestin wrote that an “evaluation commission is obligatory in order to save the electoral process.” Célestin has yet to respond to the latest developments, but if he approves of the commission he risks alienating himself from other members in the G8, whose support he is courting for a potential second round. Hinting that the commission may divide the G8, Desroches commented, “some people are more interested in continuing the process than others…not everyone has the same agenda.”
While the focus has been on the presidential race, also at stake are more than 130 legislative seats and thousands of local offices. On Wednesday, multiple legislative candidates took to Haitian radio revealing that they had been asked to pay bribes to electoral council and electoral court members in order to ensure a seat in the next legislature. The CEP was set to announce final legislative results, still pending from the October election, today.
In comments to local press, Sauvier Pierre Etienne, another G8 member, said the group would meet soon to adopt a formal position on the commission, but added, “Today more than ever, the resignation of the CEP is necessary.”