Second-round presidential and legislative runoffs, scheduled for Sunday January 24, were abruptly cancelled on Friday, less than 48 hours before polls were to open. Ruling-party backed Jovenel Moise was set to face off against Jude Celestin, who had pledged to boycott the race. Protests against the election increased throughout the week, culminating in a massive demonstration that made its way to the headquarters of the electoral council (CEP) on Friday morning.
“Jan. 24 is no longer opportune for having elections considering the threats against the electoral infrastructure and on the population who would have to go vote,” said CEP president Pierre Louis Opont in cancelling the election.
But if the threat of violence provided the necessary pretext, the writing was already on the wall. Since fraud and irregularity-marred first-round presidential elections in October (and really, since the violent August legislative elections), a growing chorus of Haitian civil society had spoken out against the continuation of the electoral process as is. An evaluation commission, created by the president, found that only eight percent of tally sheets were free from irregularities or manipulation.
“It is crazy to see that it was contemplated to hold a round in these conditions,” on January 24, said a western official working on election-related matters.
The nine-member electoral council had already seen two members resign and two more suspend their activities (one due to corruption allegations). But on Friday, as calls for the election’s cancellation increased and officials frantically rushed to reach a deal, another CEP member threatened to resign. It would have left the institution without a quorum, rendering it unable to legally sign off on election results.
Still, the large demonstration on Friday sent a message, particularly to the international backers of the election. Donors have financed the bulk of the $100 million electoral process, with the U.S. alone chipping in more than $30 million. Despite months of fraud allegations and calls from civil society, the so-called “Core Group,” consisting of the major foreign embassies, the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) had continued to insist on the completion of the electoral process on the 24th. “A few days ago some diplomats questioned the capacity of the opposition to mobilize,” the western official said, “obviously it does not look good now that they are on the streets.”
International actors have denounced the violent protests and called for the electoral process to be completed as soon as possible. The U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner, said it “expects that persons responsible for organizing, financing, or participating in electoral intimidation and violence will be held accountable in accordance with Haitian law.”
There had been signs that some within the diplomatic community were reluctant to push forward with an election that would lack credibility. Earlier in the week, the OAS issued a statement acknowledging flaws in the process and that corrective measures “have not achieved the intended level of confidence.” With Martelly digging his heels in and conflicts on the streets increasing, the “Core Group” issued a statement Friday morning, for the first time making no mention of January 24 or February 7, and calling on all sides to dialogue. It was an implicit rejection of moving forward with the election.
In an interview with Le Monde, after the elections cancellation, the head of the OAS electoral observation mission and former Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorim, acknowledged, “behind the security concerns, there are also important political issues.” An election with one candidate, he said, “would not have been accepted by the majority.”
Amorim said that Haitians “must choose the best path, have a real negotiation without external interference.” But, Amorim also warned: “What I can say is that leaving a power vacuum for too long is dangerous.”
Just days earlier, backroom negotiations, spearheaded by powerful private sector actors and religious leaders, were on the cusp of a deal. But on Thursday morning, a combative Martelly took to the airwaves, doubling down on his insistence that elections take place and accusing his opponents of wanting to seize power by delaying elections.
“Martelly wanted to push for the 24th to get a compromise,” the western official said. But with CEP’s announcement and declining international support, Martelly’s hand was undercut. “Of course, Martelly is weaker now for dragging this out,” a presidential advisor said, adding that Martelly “misunderstood” the support of the U.S. and others in the international community. A member of parliament, speaking to Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste, said “now January 24th, its over. The negotiations are for after February 7 and a new date for elections.”
But those close to the president contend that a deal would not have been accepted by all of the groups in the streets. Martelly is “negotiating his own surrender to people who don’t trust one another. So he’s between a proverbial rock and a hard place,” the presidential advisor commented.
Jocelerme Privert, the president of the newly installed Senate, who has quickly become one of the most influential Haitian politicians in the current crisis, has urged any dialogue to include more voices. “There was a weakness on the number of players involved” in previous discussions, Privert told John-Michel Caroit of Le Monde. “The solution that will emerge will not be unanimous, but to succeed there must be a critical mass of people who adhere to it.”
The election’s cancellation, however, has emboldened opposition groups, some of whom are now openly calling for Martelly to leave office before the end of his term. It has also highlighted other divisions within the opposition. Some groups would be more willing to accept reforms to the electoral apparatus before moving forward while others are insisting on a further investigation into the fraud from earlier rounds — opening the door to changing the runoff candidates or rerunning the presidential election entirely.
International officials have supported moving forward while keeping the same runoff candidates. After unflinchingly backing the process, U.S. State Department Special Coordinator Ken Merten has since acknowledged the new reality. “We may be looking at some sort of temporary solution until there is a handover to a new elected president,” he told Reuters, indicating that Martelly would step down on February 7. But, Merten added, “Our fear is that we go into a situation that is open ended.”
Further delays or investigations could reveal deeper problems with the elections, which could look bad for those who backed the process, both financially and politically. Any further investigation also raises the possibility of excluding the ruling-party candidate, opening the door to the runoff for Moïse Jean-Charles, “whom they [the international community] dread,” as a source told Le Nouvelliste last month. Jean-Charles, a former ally of twice-ousted former president Jean Bertrand Aristide, finished third in the October vote.
In response to the election’s cancellation and the large turnout of opposition protesters, pro-government supporters have begun mobilizing throughout the country. They are calling for elections as soon as possible and have raised concerns of violent confrontations between the two groups. “If Jovenel is excluded from the elections, there will be a civil war,” one protester told the AFP.
In the Grand-Anse, a sparsely populated department in southwestern Haiti, former paramilitary death squad leader Guy Philippe, a front runner in second round senatorial elections that had been scheduled for the 24th, threatened, “we are ready for war…We will divide the country.”
Philippe helped lead the 2004 coup against former president Jean Bertrand Aristide and is still listed as a fugitive by the DEA, wanted on drug-trafficking and money laundering charges. Last month he endorsed Martelly’s successor, Moise, and appeared at a campaign rally in his home region. Legislative elections in Philippe’s department were some of the most problematic in August, resulting in partial reruns in October that have yet to be settled.
Regardless of what happens with presidential elections, the deeply flawed legislative race appears set to stand, with its members playing an increasingly larger role in the current crisis. 24 of the 30 members of the senate have been sworn in, along with 92 of the 119 deputies in the lower house. Martelly allies won control over the lower house, but the senate presidency went to Privert, a former minister under Aristide and current representative of former-president Rene Preval’s political coalition. Privert is one of 10 elected officials who remained in office after Martelly failed to hold elections his first four years in power. Some opposition groups, however, have urged the recent legislative elections to also be scrapped.
Privert said he was “working with my colleagues” and was meeting with many “Haitian organizations “and “some diplomats” in order to solve the crisis. As negotiations continue for what comes after February 7, all sides are jostling for power and influence.
Prime Minister Evans Paul told the press that Martelly would be willing to step down on February 7, but others close to the president have suggested he could stay to hand over the presidential sash to his successor after new elections are held. Who who would take the reigns of government if Martelly does step down, however, remains a sticking point in negotiations. According to sources close to the negotiations, one option would have current Prime Minister Evans Paul stay on through the transition.
Paul became de facto prime minister in 2015, as he was never ratified by parliament, whose terms had recently expired. The political deal that brought Paul to office was brokered by many of the same actors involved in current negotiations, including the U.S., private sector groups and the Catholic Church. Though the agreement led to the current electoral process, it failed to ensure systemic changes that could lead to its credibility.
As negotiations drag out and street protests continue, the international community is tightly managing the fall out. For the last dozen years, explains Haitian poet Lyonel Trouillot, “all Haitian political decisions are made practically under the diktat of this nebula that is called the international community.”
A military presence under U.N. auspices has been in the country since the 2004 coup, backed by the U.S., France and others. The U.N. troops, responsible for a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 10,000 and numerous sexual abuse cases, are reviled by many Haitians but seen as a political necessity by international actors and many among the economic elite in Haiti. Billions of dollars have been spent on the mission, whose mandate includes political stability and security.
After directly intervening in the 2010 election and overturning the results, ensuring Martelly’s ascension to the presidency, international officials had hoped that a successful transfer of power at the end of his term could facilitate the departure of the politically and financially costly U.N. mission. In early October the mission’s mandate was extended by one, “possible final” year. The head of the mission, Sandra Honore, told the Security Council that an assessment would be conducted “after completion of the electoral cycle” to determine its future.
“Investing $ 100 million for elections that do not lead to political stability, it is wasteful,” Senate president Privert said. “Too bad the representatives of the international community have understood too late, we could have avoided many acts of violence.”
Ricardo Seitenfus, the OAS representative who blew the whistle on international intervention in the 2010 election, believes the Haiti electoral schedule was designed with U.S. politics in mind.
“Since Mrs. Clinton was well involved in the 2010–2011 decisions, if we started badly, we must end well. That is to say, February 7 President Michel Martelly must leave, and (Haiti) should have a new president,” Seitenfus said on local radio.
“If I have any advice to give to the international community,” Seitenfus continued, “it is to listen to Haitian actors. Without a Haitian solution to the Haitian crisis, there is no salvation.”
Any deal must first a foremost provide for a credible and fair election, one that can restore Haitian’s trust in their political system. In the October elections, only a quarter of registered voters participated, a sign of the deep distrust in an electoral system seen as dominated by the international community, unaccountable politicians and their elite backers.