Haiti’s largest electoral observation coalition has reiterated its call for a verification of the vote, after the country’s elections were halted amid growing popular outcry against fraud. The coalition, composed of Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen (SOFA), the Conseil National d'Observation Électorale (CNO), the Conseil Haïtien des Acteurs Non Étatiques (CONHANE) and the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), declared that a verification was necessary to uphold Haitians’ right to vote and to avoid “a major political and electoral crisis.” Massive protests and a boycott by one of the leading presidential candidates forced the suspension of second-round presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for January 24.
Without an elected successor to take his place, President Michel Martelly stepped down when his term ended on February 7, and handed power over to a provisional government tasked with completing the electoral process. Whether or not the provisional government will hold an independent investigation to verify previous electoral results is hotly debated by the major players involved in Haiti’s twice-postponed elections.
Human rights leaders, opposition politicians and local observers insist that an investigation into fraud is necessary in order to validate election returns. Pierre Esperance, executive director of the RNDDH, which led the coalition’s observation efforts, pointed out that his group had requested a verification just days after the October vote. “The election was canceled because of the political crisis. How can you go to the second round without a verification?” he wondered. Rosny Desroches, leader of a local observation group funded by the U.S. and Canada, also said that he believed a verification commission would need to be put in place before moving forward. Many fear that without an investigation, the same unrest that contributed to the previous election’s cancelation will simply repeat itself.
The demand for an independent verification of the vote, however, is strongly opposed by Martelly and his allies in Parliament, many of whom were elected in the very tainted elections the provisional government is now considering investigating. Many powerful members of the international community also favor going forward on the basis of the existing election results, despite growing political momentum in Haiti for a verification commission. Kenneth Merten, the U.S. State Department Haiti Special Coordinator told the press earlier this month:
I think, as I recall, the agreement talks about a completion of the process. And the process so far, I mean, has resulted in two candidates, Jude Celestin and Jovenel Moise, proceeding to the next round. From what I have understood from observers on the ground [ ... ] they understand that that is what the results showed, and my guess is that’s what’s going to happen moving forward.
Donor governments, including the U.S., have contributed the majority of the $100 million in funding for the electoral process and are concerned that a verification will lead to new elections entirely, meaning more delays and more dollars.
Allegations of widespread fraud by the ruling party have dogged the Haitian electoral process since it began in August 2015. On August 9, legislative elections for the entire 119-member Chamber of Deputies and 20 of the 30 members of the Senate were plagued by violence and fraud. Armed gangs disrupted the vote throughout the country; votes from a nearly a quarter of all voting centers were never counted. The electoral council (CEP) warned parties responsible for the violence - mostly pro-government parties - and sanctioned a few candidates, but stopped short of further penalties allowing many parties and candidates responsible for the election day disaster to stay in the race. In some 25 districts, races had to be rerun due to the number of irregularities.
In October, presidential elections were held alongside the second-round legislative races. Though violence was reduced, local observer groups reported widespread electoral fraud. In Haiti, parties are allowed to have representatives, called mandataires, at each voting booth throughout the country. Given a special accreditation pass, these representatives are able to vote wherever they are present without being on the voter list. In the days leading up to the vote, the CEP distributed more than 900,000 of these passes. With 128 registered political parties and 54 presidential candidates – many proxies for other interests – Haiti was flooded with these passes, which were bought and sold in a thriving black market. In the West department, home to 40 percent of registered voters, the EU electoral observation mission noted that some 50 percent of voters were mandataires. Local observers noted that due to inadequate training or the complicity of poll workers, safeguards to prevent multiple voting by mandataires were often not followed.
While local observers denounced the fraud and questioned the results, international officials and observation mission officials praised the election. The Organization of American States (OAS) said that its quick count on election day validated the results – an assertion repeated by leading U.S. officials. However, it was later revealed that the OAS quick counts only confirmed the arithmetic involved in the vote count, and didn’t say anything about the legitimacy of the votes being counted.
Eight of the leading opposition candidates refused to recognize the results, including Jude Celestin, who official results said came in second behind Martelly’s hand-picked successor, Jovenel Moise. Celestin was scheduled to face Moise in a run-off election for the presidency. An election-day survey of voters (that excluded mandataires) showed Moise as the choice of just 6 percent of respondents. Official results, however, gave Moise 33 percent of the vote.
Under enormous pressure, President Martelly agreed to establish an evaluation commission in late December 2015, hoping to dispel the serious doubts raised about the credibility of the election results. The presidential runoff, scheduled for December 27, was postponed. The Evaluation Commission, however, uncovered deep, structural irregularities in the election results, only reinforcing doubts about their credibility.
According to the commission’s report, 92 percent of voting booth tally sheets contained at least one “grave irregularity,” while some 50 percent contained three or more. Among the leading problems were a lack of voter registration numbers or identification numbers, evidence of tampering and missing poll workers' signatures. The commission also confirmed that multiple voting by mandataires was common, especially in urban areas. The report warned that a “President of the Republic and other elected officials issued from elections tarnished by major irregularities would further aggravate the political crisis and instability of the country.”
But with just days to perform the task, the commission’s conclusions were tentative. “We did not have enough time to determine if the results were acceptable,” Rosny Desroches, who served on the commission, recently acknowledged.
Undaunted, Martelly immediately scheduled the second-round election by decree for late January 2016. Opposition to the elections continued to grow; religious leaders, private sector business groups and even, eventually, some in the international community made clear that moving forward with the election would not produce a legitimate government. Less than 48 hours before voting was scheduled to begin, the election was officially canceled.
Senate president Jocelerme Privert was selected to oversee the political transition in Haiti and given a term of 120 days as interim president. His primary goal is to re-establish trust and credibility to an electoral process that has seen near-record low participation by voters. While low turnout has frequently been chalked up to apathy or a generalized disgust with politicians, a recent survey found that three-quarters of Haitian voters would participate in an election if they believed it was free and fair. But in August and October, less than a quarter of the electorate actually voted.
In order to establish trust and credibility in the electoral process, a verification commission must be independent and Haitian-led. Haitians are understandably wary of foreign meddling, as an international mission in 2010 overturned Haiti’s electoral results without performing a recount or statistical analysis. Any effort in 2016 must be careful to not repeat those mistakes – using a commission as a smokescreen to oust a candidate from the race. Instead, the commission must go to great lengths to establish a fair and transparent process for validating results and making recommendations on how to improve the elections.