The results of Haiti’s contested first-round presidential elections were such a disaster that the process should recommence at zero, the head of a five-member panel charged with reviewing the vote told the nation Monday.
Francois Benoit made the recommendation during a ceremony at the National Palace in which he handed over a 105-page report, the results of a month-long audit by the Independent Commission of Evaluation and Verification, to interim President Jocelerme Privert. Privert, in turn, gave the report to the revamped Provisional Electoral Council, which will ultimately decide whether to accept the recommendation. It had planned to announce a new elections calendar on Tuesday.
The commission audited 25 percent of the results, or 3,325 tally sheets from 13,000 polling stations across the country.
“The conclusion we have reached is that the evil started not only within the polling stations, but a little higher in the distribution of [accreditation cards]” Benoit said, referring to the tens of thousands of cards that were distributed to poll workers and electoral observers and went for as little as $3 on election day. The cards allowed individuals known as mandataires to vote multiple times and at any polling station. The card, he said, “frantically opened the way for … trading.”
“We noticed that there were some liberties taken with the law with the electoral process with an array of zombie votes,” he added. “The number of untraceable votes exceeded the legitimate votes acquired by politicians.”
The report itself noted that in many instances, supporting documents like the partial voting list was missing, making it impossible to determine the validity of the vote and ultimately decide who among the 54 presidential candidates should be in the runoff. There were also deceased voters on the voting list, and voting cards were also trafficked and sold to the highest bidder.
“In the commission’s opinion, the elections were a complete disaster and are simply not salvageable,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti political observer and political science professor at the University of Virginia. “They violated the basic democratic idea of one-person-one-vote; thus, a re-run is in order.”
Three times, Haiti’s presidential runoff has been postponed because of allegations of fraud that forced the country into a polarizing crisis with violent street protests, and its second caretaker government in 12 years after former President Michel Martelly was forced to end his term on Feb. 7 without an elected successor.
In December, Martelly had tasked a commission with evaluating the elections after the Dec. 27 presidential runoffs seemed highly unlikely in the face of sustained street protests. That commission, while contested by members of the opposition, found that the Oct. 25 first-round presidential vote pitting government candidate Jovenel Moïse against former state construction head Jude Célestin was plagued by irregularities and a high presumption of fraud. The commission recommended sweeping changes to the electoral machine, including a new nine-member electoral body.
The Martelly panel also recommended a deeper verification in order to determine whether there was “massive fraud” as Célestin and other opposition candidates and local observer organizations had claimed.
Martelly’s supporters have objected to the current commission named by Privert, saying that it goes beyond the scope of the 120-day caretaker government political accord governing his role.
“We’ve always said that this is a ‘Commission of Falsification’; Privert’s private CEP,” Moïse spokesman Renald Luberice said. “It is unconstitutional and illegal, and what it says doesn’t concern us. We are awaiting just one thing, and that is the elections calendar so that Jovenel Moïse can go into the second round.”
Neither Célestin nor third- and fourth-place finishers Moïse Jean-Charles and Dr. Maryse Narcisse, respectively, could be reached for comment. All had demanded a verification of the vote and led street protests in favor of it. Célestin had refused to participate in the Jan. 24 rescheduled runoff until changes were made to the electoral machine.
Privert has argued that the verification was necessary in order for Haiti to resume its interrupted electoral cycle.
On Monday, Privert acknowledged the commission’s deep dive and said he was committed to ensuring that Haiti doesn’t go into 2017 without an elected president. He warned, however, that “the country cannot pay the price of re-plunging into political instability, chaos and anarchy.”
In anticipation of trouble, the United Nations stepped up security in Port-au-Prince, and Haitians are bracing for street reactions to the recommendations.
While the panel was also tasked with evaluating the legislative elections, it was unclear late Monday how some of those seats will also be impacted. Meanwhile, there is still the question of whether restarting the presidential race from zero means re-opening registration. Also, it’s unclear whether the international community will fund any of this.
The United States had contributed about $33 million toward last year’s legislative and presidential vote, which had a price tag of $80 million. U.S. officials have acknowledged that it will be difficult to go before Congress to ask for more money for a Haitian election without any guarantees that a re-run would be better than the first round.
And while Privert made it clear that the re-run concerned only the parliament, others argue how can the election for mayors and legislators stand when they were elected in the same flawed process? Some Haiti observers say the question that Haitians must asked themselves is whether the irregularities would change the results or would the same two candidates be in the second round?
Previewing what can be a contested political environment in the coming days, Fatton said, “It remains to be seen if political actors will accept this unforgiving verdict and begin a new chapter in Haiti’s political history.”