February 08, 2016
Months before the August legislative elections last year, a small scandal erupted in the electoral bureau of Haiti’s Artibonite department. Nine months later Haiti remains mired in a political crisis, but how this came to be has faded from the headlines.
Tracing the election’s flaws from the beginning, in the Artibonite Valley, reveals just how corrupt the electoral process has been and how the politics of power and money have subverted the democratic will of the Haitian people and the elections’ credibility from day one.
In April, Louis Frantz Dort replaced Ralph Ederson Dieuconserve in the departmental electoral bureau of the Artibonite. “This suspicious change is evidence that an electoral coup is being prepared for the Parti Haitien Tet Kale (PHTK) in the Artibonite,” political activist, Délice Jacques, told the local press. The PHTK is the party of current president Michel Martelly, whom human rights organizations, religious leaders and the political opposition have accused of manipulating the elections for his own benefit and that of his allies. But in the Artibonite, this takes on a unique dynamic.
The PHTK openly allied with a number of political parties, but “then you have the local potentates,” explained an official with an international election observation mission, who requested anonymity since the process is ongoing. “It’s lord logic. They may not be part of PHTK, but the local leader wants to maintain control of his area for himself, not just for the party.” For the better part of the last decade, Haiti’s second-largest department, the Artibonite, has increasingly been controlled by Youri Latortue — a former senator and nephew of former Prime Minister Gerard Latortue — and his political party, Haiti in Action (AAA).
An advisor to President Martelly, Latortue was described by U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson in a 2007 cable published by WikiLeaks, as “the poster boy for political corruption in Haiti.” The former head of the United Nations in Haiti referred to him as a “drug dealer.” A year prior, after speaking with a close colleague of Latortue, Sanderson cabled that Latortue “may well be the most brazenly corrupt of leading Haitian politicians,” adding that “The Latortue family is crawling all over Haitian politics.”
Haiti remained on edge in the lead-up to the August election. After the terms of the entire Chamber of Deputies and two-thirds of the Senate expired in January 2015, Martelly ruled the country without legislative oversight. Without elections, local officials had, years earlier, been replaced by political appointees. Despite pledges from the national electoral council (CEP) and positive assessments from international observers, the vote on August 9 was plagued by widespread violence, intimidation and outright fraud. It was, arguably, the worst in the Artibonite.
Votes from more than 30 percent of ballot boxes across the department were never counted, as voting was shut down by armed gangs. In other cases, ballots disappeared en route to the tabulation center. The Artibonite was the only one of Haiti’s 10 departments that failed to reach the threshold of 70-percent-of-votes-counted, an arbitrary and after-the-fact benchmark instituted by the CEP. When the CEP announced preliminary results on August 17, it declared that the entire Senate election in the Artibonite was to be done over and in addition, in eight districts where fewer than 70 percent of votes were counted, races would also have to be rerun. In five areas, the vote was so marred that not a single vote was counted.
Later, the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) election monitoring division, Gerardo de Icaza, said that the number of missing votes in August would have been “enough to void” the results had they been in a national race. But De Icaza suggested that because the August vote was for local races, problems could be handled at the local level by rerunning the races. In reality, many of the problems were never addressed, setting the electoral process off course from the beginning and undermining the legitimacy of the incoming legislature that was partially sworn in last month.
The CEP, in an attempt to assuage concerns over the August violence, sanctioned 16 candidates, excluding them from the electoral process. It also issued a communiqué, warning political parties involved in “ransacking voting centers” and “removing electoral materials” that further acts would lead to harsher sanctions. But it stopped short of any direct action against parties.
In the Artibonite, the CEP warned five groups: the ruling-party’s PHTK; Latortue’s AAA; the Prime Minister’s KID party; a smaller party, REPAREN, closely linked to Latortue; and the Bouclier party. This latter party was created by Calixte Valentine, an accused murderer and a close advisor to President Martelly. Its presidential candidate’s chief of staff was another Martelly advisor. The party was so controversial that in the days after the August 9 vote, a campaign advisor to the PHTK, Roudy Choute, seeking to distance his party from Bouclier, described them as “the party with the worst drug connections.”
Despite — or perhaps because of —clear involvement in electoral violence, pro-government parties did exceptionally well in the Artibonite. Of the 11 races which eventually stood, government allies won seven seats, including five for Latortue’s AAA. The two senate seats up for grabs went to Latortue and his cousin, Carl Murat Cantave.
“The benefactors of the elections were the people who used violence, massive fraud and intimidation,” said Pierre Esperance, the head of the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), which observed the elections with two other local civil society organizations. After the announcement of results, the groups called for further investigation into the violence and the fraud-marred legislative race.
“It’s not a glorious roster of candidates” who advanced from the first-round, a foreign diplomat, who requested anonymity, said in an interview after the August vote.
Though pro-government parties clearly benefitted from the high-levels of violence, the gains were not yet secured. Given the CEP’s requirement that 70 percent of votes be counted for results to stand, two deputies (Garcia Delva of the PHTK, and Chancy Cholzer of the AAA), and Latortue himself, were set to face do-overs come the October second round. Their cases went to the departmental electoral court (BCED) of the Artibonite. The president of the BCED was Louis Frantz Dort, the controversial figure who had quietly replaced his predecessor in April.
In the cases of both Cholzer and Delva, the court, led by Mr. Dort, reintroduced tally sheets that had been excluded due to fraud or other irregularities, pushing the percent of the vote counted above 70 and allowing the results to stand. The candidates’ lawyer was Jacob Latortue, who himself would be elected to the Chamber following a court ruling in November. But for Youri Latortue, the court decision was even more controversial.
To secure a first-round win, a candidate must receive at least 50 percent of the vote, or a 25-percent lead over the second place finisher. Latortue had neither. But not only did the court reintroduce tally sheets to get over the 70-percent barrier, it applied a different calculation method to allow Latortue to advance to the second round. Despite being completely in conflict with the regulations and interpretation put forth by the CEP, Latortue advanced based on the court’s ruling while receiving only 27 percent of the vote.
The case was appealed and went to the country’s highest electoral court, the BCEN. Court judges included Yolette Mengual, a member of the CEP and close associate of Latortue who later resigned from the CEP after allegations surfaced that she had received bribes from legislative candidates. She denies the allegations. Also on the court was Jugnace Pierre, whom a different legislative candidate claims to have bribed in an attempt to obtain a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. The bribe is the subject of an ongoing legal complaint.
The BCEN appeal was denied and Latortue was awarded a first-round victory. While Latortue’s quest to become president of the Senate was thwarted last month, in the Chamber of Deputies the presidency went to his colleague, Chancy Cholzer. Delva also secured a leadership spot in the legislature.
After the decision, an anonymous member of the CEP spoke to Haiti’s leading daily,Le Nouvelliste, explaining that the departmental electoral court had no jurisdiction to put excluded tally sheets back into the count. “Yes, there was influence peddling, bargaining,” the member told the paper. “With advisors clearly at the service of power and other interests, it is difficult to guarantee elections and the credibility of results.”
A week later, facing protests from local opposition, Mr. Dort resigned from the Artibonite electoral bureau.
“If you have money, you can win. If you have power, you can win,” a candidate for the Senate in the West department explained in an interview.