Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Haiti: Haiti's Post-Quake Poll Impasse

Source: Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

Hopes that Haiti's general election would bring a degree of political stability and enable reconstruction and development in the quake-ravaged and poverty-ridden Caribbean nation were dealt a blow last Sunday.

Amid allegations of irregularities and fraud, the country's electoral authorities and international observers must now act quickly and decisively. A high dose of transparency and reliable, well-communicated information are necessary to prevent this crucial poll from undermining Haiti's chances of building the reconstruction governance structures it so urgently needs.

February's elections postponed

On 12 January 2010, the hemisphere's poorest country suffered the worst ever natural disaster in the Americas. An estimated death toll of 250,000 and the vast destruction sustained by Haiti's government, institutions and physical infrastructure forced the postponement of February's legislative elections. The quake also cast doubt over the feasibility of holding presidential polls at year's end, as stipulated by the constitution.

With no working parliament and faced with the prospect of a breakdown of the constitutional order, President René Préval and Haiti's international partners realistically did not have a choice. Building legitimacy for the country's 'Building Back Better' strategy - emphatically backed by UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton - meant pushing for general elections in November.

Obstacles to a successful election

That push was justified, but it could now backfire. Both the Haitian government and the international donor community seem to have underestimated the serious obstacles to, and downplayed the political risks of, holding elections in the taxing and volatile post-disaster situation, aggravated by a recent outbreak of cholera.

It was assumed that the commitment and large support offered by the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Organisation of American States (OAS) and other international organisations would be enough to pave the way for successful polls and keep a lid on the problems that historically have surrounded elections in Haiti. In addition, a make-believe post-quake rhetoric of overcoming politics-as-usual and building a national consensus for reconstruction was blurring perceptions of reality.

Allegations of fraud and irregularities

Even before polling stations closed on Sunday, 12 of the 19 presidential candidates, including Mirlande Manigat, a former First Lady and election frontrunner, cried foul. While Manigat has backtracked since, fraud allegations persist and serious irregularities have been confirmed by the OAS observer mission. The Provisional Electoral Council (CPE), which is accused of being biased in favour of the incumbent's candidate, Jude Celestin, has acknowledged problems but maintains that they are minor and do not invalidate the poll.

The official election results will be known in a week at the earliest. However, in the absence of clear and sufficient assurances that the vote count will be conducted fairly and rigorously this could be too long for too many people in this suffering nation.

What is needed now, and with utmost urgency, is a clear and transparent account of what happened on election day. Equally, all efforts have to be made to render the process of establishing the official result transparent. The last thing Haiti needs at this point is to be dragged into chaos by an election that was justifiably seen as a necessary and fundamental step toward political stability but then turned out to be impossible. The country's reconstruction hinges on the outcome of Sunday's polls.

Markus Schultze-Kraft is Governance Team Leader and Research Fellow at IDS.

i On Global Trends will break for Christmas, Dec 11, 2010 and return Jan 4, 2011