State Department Dumbfounded by Congressional Concerns Over Haiti’s Selection Elections

October 14, 2010

The arbitrary exclusion of 14 political parties from Haiti’s November 28 elections is a growing scandal, with a letter from 45 members of Congress sent to Secretary of State Clinton last week stating that the U.S. should not provide funding for elections that do not “include all eligible political parties and ready access to voting for all Haitians, including the displaced.” This in turn has led to increased scrutiny and coverage of the issue from the BBC, Reuters, Agence France Presse, Spanish newswire EFE, and national and local radio broadcasts.

The congressional letter follows a similar statement from over 20 NGO’s last month, not to mention periodic press reports, so the State Department’s lack of a position on the issue is troubling. When pressed on the question last week, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner’s response was even more of a non-answer than P.J. Crowley’s had been when he was asked in September, and, even worse, Toner referred to the party exclusions as “allegations”:

obviously, we want free, fair, democratic, transparent elections to take place in Haiti as well. And we’ll look into these allegations and the letter and comment later. We just — I’m sure we’ll review it and respond appropriately.

The reporter asking the question pointed out that indeed, this wasn’t the first time the issue had come up:

Well, this isn’t the first time that concerns like this have been raised. And when I asked about them a couple of weeks ago – 10 days, two weeks ago – there wasn’t really a solid answer; it was pretty much the same thing. But the specific problem that these Congress people are citing and that the human rights groups and other groups had before them is the disqualification of certain political parties from running. Do you have –

Toner replied to this by referring again to “allegations”:

I’m aware of the allegations and the letter. I just – I can state that we want to see free, fair, and transparent elections.

Assistant Secretary P.J. Crowley, who normally does the briefings, also had punted the question, asking the reporter to bring it up again later, while also stating cryptically that “There are qualifications that have to be met for candidates to stand for these elections.” What qualifications these are, however, have yet to be adequately explained, according to spokespersons for Fanmi Lavalas, Haiti’s most popular party, who attempted to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops in order to have their slate of candidates registered, to no avail. Further, the CEP has controversially offered no explanation of why it is continuing to ban these parties from the ballot; it merely carried forward its arbitrary exclusions from early last year, a point even noted by Johanna Mendelson-Forman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – who seems to support the elections being held regardless – in an interview with the Kojo Nnamdi Show today. As Nicole Phillips, a staff attorney for the Institute for Justice and Democracy noted in an op-ed for The Hill newspaper:

The reasons for excluding the other 13 parties are unclear, as the CEP, which was hand-picked by President Préval, lacks any transparency and shrugs its obligations to explain its decisions.  Famni Lavalas was supposedly excluded because in the April 2009 Parliamentary elections, the party’s list of candidates did not contain an original signature from party leader President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The CEP created this requirement at the last minute, knowing that President Aristide was in exile in South Africa and unable to deliver a signature. What does this have to do with November 28, 2010, you ask? The CEP just carried over its decision to exclude from April 2009; Famni Lavalas need not apply to run in November.

The bottom line, as the members of Congress point out, is that elections without the inclusion of all “eligible political parties” are likely to be seen as illegitimate – not an abstract concept, considering that Fanmi Lavalas is already planning a boycott. Recent past experience shows that turnout this time around could be very slight; even CSIS’ Mendelson-Forman noted that the April 2009 legislative elections had voter participation of only three to six percent. But the poor turnout last time was due to organized boycotts inspired by anger at the parties’ exclusion (a factor that Mendelson-Forman conveniently ignored), and this will almost certainly be the case this time as well.

Were an illegitimate government to emerge after November 28, as over a million quake survivors still struggle to regain a dignified life with adequate shelter, sanitation, schools, and job opportunities, free from sexual violence and other violent crime, the consequences could be grave. As Rep. Waters and the other members of Congress note:

President John Kennedy famously remarked, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Running transparently unfair, exclusive elections, with the support of the international community, will leave many Haitians to conclude that they have no choice but to protest the elections and the consequent government through social disruption. That disruption threatens to severely limit such a government’s ability to govern, and imperils the United States’ past and future investments in Haiti’s reconstruction.

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