Experience of Haiti: exclusion by election

By Ken Cable

On November 20, 2016 Jovenal  Moise was elected President in Haiti bringing to an end a long period of delayed elections and interim rule in a country which has suffered more than most from both the ravages of foreign intervention and misgovernance by a corrupt elite.

The election result was welcomed by the so called "core group" of international actors - the ambassadors in Haiti of the United States, Canada, Brazil, France, Spain and the European Union, plus the special representative of the Organisation of American States and the Secretary General of the UN - who have collectively acted as "trustees" of what is nominally an independent country.

The result was also welcomed by the elite who saw another of their number occupy the presidency thereby consolidating what has in effect has come to be a neo-Duvalierist regime, responding to their needs and above all excluding from power those who sought to change the system but were met in the past with force and terror, and now with systematic political manipulation which has discredited politics and led to widespread political alienation.

The election was won on a turnout of around 20% of which Moise won just over half, and the three other main centre-left candidates 40%. In reality Moise has become president with less than 10% of the registered voters.

The contrast with December 1990 which saw the left-wing radical Aristide voted in by 67% on a turnout of 80% in Haiti's first free election could not be starker. A coup nine months later forced Aristide abroad and while he was restored four years later the momentum for fundamental change of his early months in power was never rekindled. 

The result was that the wholesale uprooting of the Duvalierist system of government, whose dictatorship lasted from 1957-1986, was never achieved. Indeed, "Baby-Doc" Duvalier who succeeded his father "Papa Doc" Duvalier as president and dictator before being forced out of the country by a popular uprising in 1986, returned in 2011 and lived in Haiti until his death in 2014 under the effective protection of then President Martelly.

Martelly was elected in March 2011 following contested elections which had seen the party of Aristide banned from running and widespread political manipulation, intimidation and fraud in both registration for the elections and in the vote count.

The first presidential election was in November 2010. The official result of that election, on a low turnout of 23% showed the level of political distrust and alienation already felt in the country. It put Manigat first, Celestin second and Martelly third, but since none had won the 50% plus one needed a second round would follow with only two candidates allowed. Martelly should have been eliminated as the third place candidate.

He was not. Following riots and protests by his supporters as well as opposition to the declared results by Manigat, the Organisation of American States (OAS) appointed an observer mission to study the election results.  It reversed the second place result to confirm Martelly as the run-off candidate.

The reasoning, methods and report of this mission were later shown to be false by the Washington based Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). To which should be added the fate of Ricardo Seitenfus, previously the Special Representative of the OAS in Haiti, who had highlighted political manipulation and foreign intervention in the process leading up to the November election, casting doubt on the elections as a whole, and who was promptly dismissed for his troubles in December 2010.

However, with the new run-off candidates announced , the US ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten  was reported as saying it was "a good day in Haiti again" (The Economist, 4 February 2011). He was even happier a month later when Martelly, as the preferred candidate of the US, won with 68% of the vote, again on a low turnout.

Martelly continued through his presidency as he had begun. Elections for the Senate, which should have been held and which would have likely gone against him were postponed, rendering the Senate inquorate and powerless while similarly those for the Chamber of Deputies were also not held. Nor were those for local government. 

In the end Martelly was able to rule by decree. In the lower levels of government he was able to appoint supporters many of whom had links in the past with the Duvaliers when they were in power.

Indeed, Martelly himself had been a prominent opponent of Aristide and a supporter of Duvalierist tendencies in Haiti, with links to those who staged the September 1991 coup against Aristide. The regime he constructed drew on the Duvalierist legacy not only in appointees but in the way he commandeered state resources for the enrichment of himself and his family. He rewarded himself with generous funding for multiple trips abroad and established nine special "development" funds overseen by him and administered by his cronies.

His regime is best described as "neo-Duvalierism" and while it attracted its critics abroad the "core group" remained broadly in support of the government while the majority in Haiti grew ever more alienated and opposed, with street protests about almost every aspect of life in Haiti a daily reality.

The elections which could be postponed no longer demonstrated the depth to which Haiti had sunk under four years of Martelly's misrule.

Three were scheduled for 2015. The first in August to elect some Senate and Chamber of Deputies seats, the second in October to conclude these elections and simultaneously hold the first round of the presidential elections, and the concluding presidential election in December.

The August elections were marked by violence, intimidation, and fraud among other numerous irregularities reported by both Haitian and international observers. The official turnout was given as 18% but was in all probability lower. Widespread protest by Haitian civil society organisations about the conduct and results of the elections was ignored.

The October elections, while marginally better organised, saw widespread fraud and ballot stuffing, along with attempts to rig the election observation process in favour of pro-regime candidates. The turnout was officially given as 26% but again was most probably lower. Moise was announced as the lead presidential candidate with 33% of the vote and Celestin second with 25%. Once again local observers documented numerous irregularities.

Nevertheless, the international observer missions of both the OAS and the European Union, which had in part financed the elections, described the two elections as successful exercises in democracy and urged the process to continue. Massive protests promptly followed and while the OAS did partly revise its conclusions the EU refused to do so. However, in the end Martelly was forced to postpone the scheduled final round of the elections and establish a commission to examine the results.

It reported massive irregularities in the October elections but Martelly decided to ignore most of its findings and set a new date for the final round at the end of January 2016. This only further intensified the opposition and finally the elections were suspended indefinitely.

Martelly relinquished office in February 2016 and was succeeded by Privert as interim president. In the face of continuing pressure from civil society and political parties Privert established the Independent Commission for the Evaluation and Verification of Elections (CIEVE).  It concluded that "the electoral process was marred by serious irregularities, grave incoherencies and massive fraud" and recommended a re-run of the election (Haiti Support Group et al, Democracy Discouraged: International Observers and Haiti's 2015 Elections, September 2016).

The CIEVE's conclusions were accepted by elections observers, journalists, civil society and most political parties in Haiti. Opposed was Martelly's party (including Moise), the US and the EU, who withdrew their election funding and in the case of the EU stood down its observer mission.

The election was set for October 2016 but then delayed for a month when Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, killing hundreds and making thousands homeless. It was finally held in November but by then widespread disillusion had set in among the majority of Haitians and Moise and the neo-Duvalierists were able to celebrate victory and further consolidation of power.

As the CEPR wrote shortly after the election: "Haiti's elections no longer serve as a means of representative democracy, but have become a theatrical performance to ensure international legitimacy and a steady flow of profit and power to the country's corrupted elite and their local allies" (Jake Johnston, February 13, 2017).

It is a conclusion which is difficult to dispute and which does nothing to resolve the many problems of the country.

At the moment Haiti is politically quiet, even demoralised, but anyone with a knowledge of the country knows it will not last and that without warning political turmoil will erupt again. The slogan when it last did so, from 1986-90, was dechoukaj, which in Haitian Creole means "uprooting" and was then applied to the symbols and substance of the Duvalier dynasty and its leading supporters. It was prematurely brought to an end by the elite and their international backers but for the Haitian masses dechoukaj remains as unfinished business which the next time promises to be more thoroughgoing and destructive than the last and to mark a real end to the regime.


April 2004: US marines in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince

Jovenal Moise

Michel Martelly

'Baby Doc'

'Papa Doc'