Haiti’s prime minister and elections council president sought to reassure the international community Thursday that all was on track for the country’s most complex election process in history.
“We’ve already started the process, and progress is visible,” Pierre-Louis Opont, president of the Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP, told Haiti’s international partners in New York during a United Nations donors conference. The country was seeking $31 million to cover election costs. At the meeting, Brazil, Canada, Norway and the United States promised to provide additional funding, the spokesman for the U.N. Secretary General said. It was unclear Thursday how much.
An effusive Opont told donors that political parties, civil society and voters had confidence in the elections council, adding that “we have headed off skeptics.”
But serious doubts remain, including notification of polling sites for many of the 5.8 million voters, exclusion of some candidates and the council’s tardiness in almost everything from recruiting and training of poll workers to the publication of the final lists of candidates.
“What the members of the [Provisional Electoral Council] are saying do not conform with the reality we are seeing on the ground,” Pierre Esperance, head of the National Human Rights Defense Network, told the Miami Herald. “We risk unleashing a huge catastrophe.”
Among the issues his group has raised both with the CEP and U.N. officials, Esperance said, is the lack of voter education taking place about the importance of the election and concerns that 60 percent of registered voters could be disenfranchised.
“All of the process is late, and we are asking ourselves, for whom is the CEP organizing these elections?” he said.
Esperance’s concerns come as Haiti prepares to hold the first of three polls on Aug. 9 to restore its parliament, which dissolved in January, leaving President Michel Martelly to rule by decree.
Although Haiti has asked donors for $31 million, the U.S. State Department estimates that the country needs as much as $50 million to cover a second round on Oct. 25 and, if needed, a third round on Dec. 27.
The October election will include legislative runoffs, the first round of presidential balloting and local elections. If no one wins the presidential race outright, runoffs will be held in December.
All agree that Haiti’s elections, at least three years overdue, are essential to strengthen democracy in the country, which currently has just 11 elected officials — the president and 10 senators — and no functioning parliament.
“They [elections] are essential for the reestablishment of institutional balance, and for Haiti’s long-term democratic consolidation,” said Sandra Honoré, U.N. special representative and head of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti. “And most importantly, they are essential to meet the Haitian people’s desire for democracy, citizen participation, accountability and good governance.”
But whether donors, who have been decreasing assistance to Haiti in recent years and tried unsuccessfully to get Haiti to reform its election cycle, will come up with the additional funds, remained unclear.
“These elections will constitute a major test for the Haitian institutions, the Provisional Electoral Council and no doubt for the government and in particular for the people of Haiti, and for the future of democracy in Haiti,” Prime Minister Evans Paul told donors. “They will also be so to a certain extent, a test for the international community and for the United Nations, which for the last 10 years has accompanied the Haitian people ... in its path toward achieving stabilization and democracy.”
But there are challenges, Paul noted, from the massive presence of more than 41,000 candidates vying for 6,102 elected posts, including president, to the lack of funding.
Haiti, he said, had already contributed $13.8 million, more than any country, to a United Nations Development Program fund for elections expenditures. His government also planned on providing another $10 million for the 128 political parties that are participating, and $6 million to the Haitian National Police, which will bear the brunt of the security responsibility.
Addressing the challenges, Paul said, was of “crucial importance for the future of democracy and development of Haiti.”
Opont echoed Paul’s sentiments, while touting his nine-member council’s achievements and downplaying existing concerns and skepticism about its ability to pull off such a complex undertaking.
“As opposed to previous elections, this time around,” Opont said, “no political party decided to boycott the elections or undermine them. Everyone’s on board, we can say. This fact has created a new climate of exclusivity and despite some problems, it has allowed for national dialogue to ensure that everyone is on board, we can say.”
“Today,” he added, “we can guarantee the transparency, honesty and credibility of the entire process.”
James Morrell, the head of the Washington-based Haiti Democracy Project, said he, too, has concerns about the upcoming vote, given the way in which the council went about barring candidates. Among them are former Sen. Rudolph Boulos, a founder of the Haiti Democracy Project, who is making the rounds in Washington this week, and former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and university president Jacky Lumarque.
“You have to be careful with Haiti. They don’t have the concept down there of a free elections and let the chips fall where they may,” said Morrell, who recently voiced his concerns in an open letter to Florida senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio. “If I were a voter in Haiti, I would feel a little cheated. There is nothing left for me to do; they have already made all the decisions.”