By Jacqueline Charles
Haiti’s presidential election campaign opened on Wednesday with a few high-priced billboards and radio ads, but minus the cheering drumbeat and rallies familiar to the country’s 5.8 million registered voters.
The timid start was as much a reflection of the lack of money among many of the 54 candidates vying to replace President Michel Martelly, as it was about the uncertainty clouding the electoral process. Many continue to doubt that the constitutionally mandated Oct. 25 elections will happen, emboldening beliefs by some that Haiti is headed for a caretaker or transition government.
“It’s a very confusing situation,” said political analyst Fritz Dorvilier, who teaches sociology at the State University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince. “There are too many problematic elements in the political game. The population, principle political actors and institutions are all swimming in troubled waters, and don’t see clearly where this is headed.”
Dorvilier and others say that Haiti’s nine-member Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP, has not only lost its force and credibility, but it’s also in need of a serious remake — such as replacing members — if the electoral process is to be salvaged.
“The situation is degenerating,” Dorvilier said. “The CEP made a lot of grave errors to the point that not even the international community can support it.”
A month after the first round of legislative elections, the CEP still hasn’t announced who among the 1,855 candidates running for 139 legislative seats in the violence-marred Aug. 9 balloting will head into a runoff, also scheduled for Oct. 25. Meanwhile, disagreement over how the final results should be calculated persists.
On Wednesday, several political parties, including two with presidential candidates, joined renewed opposition protests calling for the cancellation of the Aug. 9 vote, the resignation of CEP President Pierre-Louis Opont and the departure of Martelly. Opont told the Haiti daily newspaper Le Nouvelliste that he has no intentions of stepping down before Oct. 26.
“Our fight is about wiping out the elections of Aug. 9, and have elections happen under good conditions,” said Andre Michel, an opposition leader and presidential candidate. “They are not possible with this current CEP or Martelly.”
The protests, which took place in five Haitian cities, came a day after Verite, a leading political party backed by former President René Préval, announced that it would not go to elections with the current elections council because it lacks credibility. In June, the CEP removed the party’s presidential candidate, Jacky Lumarque, for lack of paperwork after having initially approved him. They have refused to re-admit him despite admissions that an error was made.
The same day of Verite’s announcement, another party announced that it was leaving Martelly’s government. The move by INITE effectively ended a January political agreement between Martelly and the opposition that had quieted calls for his departure and cleared the way for credible elections.
INITE’s decision came after the administration announced that it was replacing Dr. Ariel Henry, a respected neurosurgeon and INITE member, as the head of the ministry of interior. The ministry is a key government function during elections. Its new head Ardouin Zéphirin, is a former departmental director who is close to Martelly and his presidential candidate, Jovenel Moise, sources say.
“To me, if they don’t tie Martelly’s arms and put sufficient pressure on Martelly for him to not intervene and let the process roll, we won’t have free and fair elections but an electoral masquerade,” said INITE leader Paul Denis, who is demanding that Henry resign. “What happened on the 9th of August was a coup d’état and it’s unacceptable. There is no democratic country where that would be accepted.”
Denis said he was always against a transition, but given how events are unfolding five months before the end of Martelly’s term, he senses that a transition “is inevitable.”
“This CEP has committed a bunch of faux pas and we won’t accept it,” he said.
In a series of tweets late Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Pamela White sought to quell calls for a transitional government, tweeting, “private businesses are NOT attracted to transitional governments which do not offer long term stability.”
“But this country needs a REAL government,” White said, adding that the U.S. had committed an additional $5 million for the second round to its already $25 million elections contribution. “We encourage all political parties to respect the rule of law, and stop causing disorder in the street.”
Robert Fatton, a Haiti political expert, said that while elections on Oct. 25 remain uncertain, he doesn’t see the international community supporting a transitional government in lieu of elections, nor does he see them changing their position on the Aug. 9 vote during which many of the 1,500 polling stations were attacked.
Meanwhile, he said, the political parties are ambiguous and even contradictory in their position. For example, parties are demanding changes to the CEP and an independent commission to evaluate the first round, but their candidates remain in the race with several presidential contenders even scheduled to participate in a town hall Tuesday in Washington.
“Either you are in, or you are out,” said Fatton, who teaches political science at the University of Virginia.
For the equation to change, he said, street protests would need to get more intense, and Verite’s candidates that are headed into the runoff would need to say they are leaving the process.
“That would push many other parties out and that would unravel the whole electoral process,” he said. “I don’t see how you can change the equation if you don’t have massive protests and a real withdraw from the race by Verite’s candidates. And then at that point, we have to see what happens with the international community. They said the elections were good enough. Would they still say that now?”
If the presidential elections do happen, there are still no guarantees, Fatton warned.
“They have to be so much better than the one on Aug. 9. If they are not much better, there is going to be an explosion,” he said. “This is no longer a joke. Aug. 9 was a very bad rehearsal … and the elections won’t be acceptable to anyone; the international community won’t be able to say they are OK.”