A Very Good Day for Haiti

By Robert Maguire, Focus On Haiti Initiative, 21 November 2016.

If ever a country and its people needed a good day, it was Haiti and the Haitian people.  Over the past two months, they have been battered by a monstrous hurricane and, more recently, by widespread flooding and mudslides.  Over the past year, they have been subject to fraudulent elections and, when the country’s political, social, civic and economic leaders sought to rectify them, resistance and pressure to accept the election results status quo from external forces who ironically often present themselves as Haiti’s ‘friends.’  And, in the five years prior to those denigrating elections, the country and its people were subject to a government more known for organizing carnivals, engaging enthusiastically in debt-inducing political patronage and shady dealings, and disrespecting democratic process and practice than for leading the country to a stronger, more prosperous future.

It is through this lens that Sunday, November 20, 2016 was a very good day for Haiti.  On that day, the bruised country held an election and determined citizens went to polling places around the country in what has been described by the head of the elections council as “a successful day… that unfolded in calm, serenity… and, in general… without violence.” Voters went to cast ballots for president, and in certain constituencies, for senators and lower chamber deputies engaged in a run-off election.  Should no single candidate for the presidency receive more than 50% of Sunday’s votes, a presidential run-off between the two top vote getters is scheduled for January 29, 2017.

In view of the tepid and rather late support of Sunday’s reformed balloting by international actors (including the U.S.), Haitians who have chaffed for years over the dominant role outsiders have played in their political process must have a sense of vindication over Sunday’s ‘calm, serene’ outcome.  Joining the interim government and its Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) in relishing this absolution is the multitude of civil society, church, and business leaders who supported the push toward Haitian assertion of ‘ownership’ of its presidential election.  Without doubt, Haitian ownership contributed significantly in the positive outcome on November 20th. Haitians all along the country’s socio-economic spectrum now had something to prove with this election.  With determination and dignity they demonstrated that they can lead their own political process, and conduct – and pay for – their own elections.  They must now be accorded all due respect for this important step in strengthening Haiti’s democratic process.  After all, it must be asked, what truly democratic country does not ‘own’ its own elections?

Kudos are thereby accorded to the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) that organized the election and to the workers it engaged nationwide to organize and guide the electoral process; to the Provisional government that stood against pressure to accept electoral fraud and that successfully found the $55 million needed to finance their election; to both the Haitian National Police (HNP) who provided unflinching security for the process and the United Nations peacekeepers and police trainers who worked alongside them; to the Haitian election monitoring organizations that exposed the prior fraud and remained engaged as watchdogs to assiduously monitor the election on November 20; and to the citizens of Haiti who voted in calm and serenity, and by doing so showed their commitment to this manifestation of democratic process.

That process improved significantly in large part because the CEP implemented much-needed reforms in arrangements for electoral observation by political party operatives.  Their number was reduced; they were given photo IDs; and they were permitted only one vote, at their home polling station.  A year earlier, the jaw-dropping number of close to one million of these ‘mandataires’ were empowered with generic ID badges that infused the process with fraud, repeated voting in multiple polling places, and the crowding of polling sites which certainly intimidated ‘ordinary’ voters.

The ballot also improved because of the determination of the CEP and Haitian security officials to clearly disseminate the rules of the electoral process and to take quick, appropriate action against those who sought to break them either leading up to the election or on Election Day itself.  Early reports indicate that some 43 arrests were made on Election Day of individuals seeking to disrupt voting transparency.  Happily, violence feared for Election Day – heightened by the HNP’s interception of several illicit deliveries of weapons during the run-up to elections – did not occur.

One good day, however, does not make a successful election outcome.  Much work remains in the aftermath of the actual voting.  Ballots must be secured and counted – unfortunately still a painfully long process in Haiti.  Results must be released fully and with the transparency needed to instill greater confidence in them among both Haitian citizens who have become apathetic toward and distrustful of elections,  and the international actors who have become accustomed to accepting controversial and flawed election results, sending a message that Haitians must be satisfied with a ‘second class’ democracy.

Beyond doubt, when those results are released, losing candidates will cry ‘foul,’ accusing the process of fraud and of bias against them.  This has become standard practice in Haitian elections… sometimes, as was seen in the 2015 so-called elections, with cause.  It will be up to Haitian election authorities to respond quickly, clearly and fairly to contestations, as it will be the responsibility of losing candidates to accept transparent and honest results. Spoilers – with or without guns – still lurk in the shadows seeking to undermine a process or an outcome that does not satisfy their goal of gaining power and protecting their privilege.  Vigilance is called for to monitor them and thwart any even tentative moves they make toward disruption.    And, as the country moves toward a probable presidential run-off election on January 2017, flaws in the reformed process, including those that created confusion among certain voters as to where they could actually vote, must be corrected.

As always, many challenges remain ahead, as reflected in the oft-cited Haitian proverb ‘dèyè mòn, gen mòn,’or, ‘beyond mountains there are more mountains.’  Nevertheless, Sunday, November 20, 2016 was a very good day for Haiti’s besieged and fragile democracy, and a very good day for Haiti.  Haiti’s true friends hold fervent hope for many more very good days to come.

Robert “Bob” Maguire, Ph.D.
Director, Focus On Haiti Initiative
Elliott School of International Affairs
The George Washington University, Washington DC
November 21, 2016