Haiti’s hurricane-delayed elections now set for Nov. 20

A water-damaged campaign poster lies amidst clothes and other household goods outside a home destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in a seaside fishing neighborhood of Port Salut, Haiti, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. Oct. 9 was the date set for Haiti's presidential elections, but they were postponed after Hurricane Matthew.
A water-damaged campaign poster lies amidst clothes and other household goods outside a home destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in a seaside fishing neighborhood of Port Salut, Haiti, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. Oct. 9 was the date set for Haiti's presidential elections, but they were postponed after Hurricane Matthew. AP

Haiti’s elections board has set Nov. 20 as the new date for the country’s repeatedly delayed elections.

But a post-Hurricane Matthew analysis of the damage to voting centers and to communities hardest hit by the storm’s 145 mph winds and floodwaters raises questions about whether that date is realistic.

A leaked internal report by the Organization of American States’ Electoral Observation Mission warned that “it is clear it will be hard” for Haiti to hold an election soon, given the damage to roads, bridges and 300 schools that serve as polling places in many communities.

The document made the rounds on the messaging app What’s App this week. The Miami Herald verified its authenticity. The document did not name an election date.

While stressing that elections must happen soon to give Haiti a legitimate government to handle reconstruction in the aftermath of Matthew, some in the international community had been pushing for a new election date at the end of November or in early December. The re-run of the presidential election originally had been set for Oct. 9. The hurricane hit Haiti on Oct. 4.

The presidential runoff and elections for local offices will now take place on Jan. 29 instead of Jan 8. If none of the 27 people running for president manage to win the first round with 50 percent plus 1, Haiti risks — once again — not having an elected president by the Feb. 7 constitutionally mandated date.

Haiti’s electoral process began 18 months ago and was stalled by allegations of massive fraud in last year’s Oct. 25 presidential vote. Earlier this year, former President Michel Martelly stepped down when his five-year term ended on Feb. 7, even though there was no elected successor. As a result, the country went into its second transitional government in 12 years.

Haiti's elections chief Leopold Berlanger acknowledged that the new elections calendar likely won't permit an elected president in office by February.

He said the council arrived at its decision after speaking with political parties and others. The council rejected the idea of holding partial presidential elections in areas not impacted by the storm.

"We want acceptable elections in all of the departments so that the person elected has legitimacy and the country can find political stability,” he said.

Voters in storm-damaged communities had ixed feelings about focusing on elections when the damage to Haiti is so severe.

“We shouldn’t have to talk about elections, but we have to talk about elections. We need a real president,” said Jean Yves Alexis, a farmer from Archille, a community outside of Camp-Perrin in the Les Cayes district, where he and neighbors say every single building was damaged.

Haiti has an interim president, Jocelerme Privert, though his official mandate ran out in June.

“The way this country is now, we need a president who will make demands for Haiti,” Alexis said. “But we need a president who sees the peasants in the countryside. Not just in the capital, so things stay centralized, but they need to see the farmers who are working.”

As for the people, like many of his neighbors, who lost every last possession, down to the ID cards they would need to vote, Alexis added: “Only the people in charge of elections can say how they will judge cases like that. Out here, we don’t know what to do anymore.”

Of 1,534 voting centers around the country, OAS observers have visited and verified conditions at 1,331. Those they were not able to access were due to washed-out roads and bridges. That reality factored into the Provisional Electoral Board’s decision to postpone the scheduled Oct. 9 vote for president, as well as the parliamentary elections.

Of the voting centers in Haiti’s 10 geographical regions, only those in the north and northeast were undamaged. In the south, where the city of Les Cayes is situated, 71 percent of voting centers were non-usable and 18 percent weren’t accessible.

In the Grand’ Anse, the hardest hit of the departments, observers were only able to visit 26 of the 106 voting centers. And 23 of them were damaged.

“The Department of the Grand’ Anse isn’t ready for elections,” Jérémie Mayor Claude Harry Milord said. “Hunger is killing the people. Cholera is killing the people.”

Milord and others here said humanitarian aid has been moving too slowly in the city, even as a United Nations convoy was observed Friday crossing the Grand’ Anse bridge, the only link between Jérémie and the rest of the country.

More than anything, the problem appeared to be one of a lack of coordination, and a power struggle between local representatives in charge of food distribution.

Milord complained that there was an absence of the central government present in the city, and the ongoing cleanup was thanks to presidential candidates Jude Celestin and Jovenel Moise. The two front-runners’ party emblems were stamped all over large trucks and heavy equipment clearing debris in parts of the department.

“Those two men have given the city more help than Privert,” Milord said.

The involvement of candidates in the humanitarian and relief response is making some in the international community wary, but Haitians like Sorel Jacinth, a former president of the lower chamber who is running for the Senate, say elections need to happen quickly.

“If you don’t do elections as soon as possible, you don’t even know if the people will be interested in voting down the road,” Jacinth said. “If you let too much time pass and you don’t do it, you may not be able to do it.”

According to the report, there are 175,000 people in shelters, many of them in schools.

Together, the three hardest-hit regions represent 1,172,194 registered voters of the total 6,189,160 voters, according to the report.

“The successful organization of elections in the areas that have been heavily affected require a concerted effort,” the OAS’ elections observers said.

Rowan Moore Gerety of WLRN/Herald News contributed to this report.