November 20, 2016
Ever since the first democratic elections in 1990, the influence of foreign actors over Haiti’s political process has only increased. Foreign donors have financed Haitian elections, UN troops have transported ballots and guarded polling stations, international observers have granted (or withheld) legitimacy to electoral outcomes, and foreign embassies have intervened when postelectoral crises erupt. Due to this preponderant role played in elections, the so-called international community ? the polite term for the dominant powers, organized now as the Core Group ? has often had the last word in Haitian politics.
This state of affairs has engendered even greater distrust in the political process. Sensing that it was not voters but foreign diplomats who decided who could be president, Haitians’ participation in elections has plummeted, from greater than 50 percent participation a decade ago to only about 25 percent last year. But with the developments over the past year and a half, that cycle looked to be breaking down.
The decision of the Haitian authorities, with the support of civil society, to rerun the election was a huge blow to the US and its allies in the international community. The Core Group (which brings together the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Brazil, Spain, the European Union, and the special representatives of the Organization of American States and the secretary general of the United Nations) had vigorously opposed calls for a verification commission and the formation of a transitional government after the October 25, 2015 elections. Many advocated for a continuation of last year’s vote, despite the protests of political actors and civil society, and the boycott of second-place finisher Jude Celestin. As Haiti expert Robert Maguire noted at the time, “the objective seems simply to be able to check an ‘elections done’ box.”
The US and the Core Group was also worried that new elections might give the Lavalas-aligned candidates (Maryse Narcisse and Moïse Jean-Charles) a better chance at the presidency. “They’re not thrilled with Aristide’s forces coming back,” a US congressional source told Reuters regarding the Obama administration’s reaction to the antifraud protests. Another concern for the Obama administration was keeping Haiti ? where Hillary Clinton had developed a negative reputation ? out of the headlines during the US presidential campaign.
An organized and mobilized civil society rejected the dictates of the foreign actors and the interim government that took over when former president Martelly’s term expired responded to these demands. Confronted by this stunning development, European Union observers pulled out of the country after the decision to rerun the presidential election. The US withdrew $2 million in funding that remained in a UN-managed election basket fund and, with Canada, pledged not to provide additional money for this year’s election. Foreign aid was reduced over the last year, with many embassies refusing to attend meetings with the provisional president, or even go to the National Palace over the last nine months.
A notable exception was the OAS. While echoing some of the EU’s criticisms, the OAS observers did not actively oppose the decision to rerun the election and pledged to continue accompanying the process. Still, after the OAS’ widely criticized intervention in the 2010 election and their early and steadfast support for last year’s results, the OAS has been discredited in many Haitians’ eyes.
The Haitian government’s pledge to fund the elections itself was another significant step toward greater sovereignty and independence. While previously legitimacy was bestowed from abroad, now it is clear that it must be Haitians that provide the ultimate barometer of the election’s success.
But some of these advances have been slowed or thwarted by the passing of Hurricane Matthew. With a dire humanitarian situation, it was necessary for the provisional government to obtain funds and support from international actors. With the damage to electoral infrastructure and the newly created logistics problems, further support for the electoral process was also necessary.
This is has put the international community in a better position to influence and wield power over the Haitian government and the electoral process. Interestingly, after criticizing the postponements and investigations over the last year, it was international actors that pressured for a longer delay after the early-October hurricane, though there was an insistence on moving forward with elections no later than November.
Since the hurricane, the US has announced they will in fact provide funding for UNOPS to handle electoral logistics and statements from the UN and others have been largely supportive of the interim government’s efforts to hold the elections, even praising improvements in the electoral process.
In addition to regaining their diminished influence, foreign donors have other interests ahead of Sunday’s vote. With relief efforts following Hurricane Matthew ? and millions of dollars ? on the line, there is a lot more at stake in these upcoming elections, for all interested parties.