Haiti voters set to elect a new president in the midst of hurricane recovery efforts

Workers count boxes of electoral material in a polling station in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Sunday's voters will choose a president, with the top two finishers going to a Jan. 29 runoff, as well as senators and members of the Chamber of Deputies.
Workers count boxes of electoral material in a polling station in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Sunday's voters will choose a president, with the top two finishers going to a Jan. 29 runoff, as well as senators and members of the Chamber of Deputies. AP

The joint United Nations and Haiti National Police patrol arrived early, checking out the storm-damaged school that will serve as a voting center, while reassuring director Ulrick Etienne that come Sunday he has nothing to worry about.

The visit was a welcome development for Etienne, who eight days earlier had finally gotten a gray tarp to cover the damaged roof. It was torn apart when Hurricane Matthew’s Category 4 winds battered rural Petit-Trou-de-Nippes after making landfall Oct. 4 on Haiti’s southern peninsula.

“I would have preferred something other than a tarp, but since it’s the only thing I have found at this moment, I have no other choice,” said Etienne, who is also a poll worker at the site. “It will not even last more than three months with the sun and the rain. But since they say it’s temporary, and they are waiting on the first round of the presidential elections, we’ll see.”

Six weeks after Matthew, and more than a year after allegations of “massive” voter fraud propelled Haiti onto a rocky road of violent election-related protests, postponements, a temporary government and donor backlash over a rerun decision, more than 6.1 million voters will finally get a chance to select a legitimate government.

But with the delayed presidential rerun and partial legislative elections taking place in the aftermath of the biggest humanitarian disaster to hit this country since the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, many wonder if Haiti can pull off the vote. And if it does, will the results be accepted enough to give the winner the legitimacy needed to provide Haitians the stability they crave?

“It’s a huge gamble,” said Nicole Phillips, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, who was part of a team of U.S.-based lawyers that, after observing the Oct. 25, 2015, presidential vote, issued a scathing report stating that a pattern of systemic fraud, voter confusion and intimidation — and in some areas, disenfranchisement — deeply flawed the process.

“How can you have a good election now?” Phillips said. “This is November 2010 all over again when you had the earthquake and then cholera, and how could you possibly have had good elections? We suffered with those results for five years. We’re setting ourselves up for that again.”

Proponents of moving forward with Sunday’s vote say it’s time.

The process began more than 20 months ago and it has suffered through five campaign launches. Widespread distrust over the initial results that pitted former President Michel Martelly’s presidential pick, Jovenel Moïse, against opposition leader Jude Célestin eventually led to a provisional government with a 120-day term that expired in June, a new Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) and a controversial decision to redo the first round on the recommendations of a verification commission.

As a result of the electoral crisis, the economic climate worsened, and donor fatigue has left even the U.N. struggling to raise $120 million in emergency relief to provide humanitarian assistance to the 1.4 million people in five geographical regions affected by Matthew: South, Grand’Anse, Northwest, Nippes and parts of the West that includes the capital of Port-au-Prince.

“It is very critical that the elections take place,” said Sandra Honoré, the head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti and special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Haiti needs an elected president, and as the provisional president said this week, ‘Haiti needs a legitimate government.’”

Without elections, Haiti risks being without not just an elected president but also a working parliament. Along with the 27 candidates vying to become president, 179 other candidates are running for 51 legislative seats. Among them: 10 seats in the Senate that are set to expire in January.


“If those 10 seats are not renewed, one runs the risk of the parliament becoming dysfunctional,” Honoré said. “We saw what a dysfunctional parliament brought to the country at the beginning of January 2015. We and Haiti would like to avoid that.”

Privately, Haitian and foreign officials know that the elections will be messy, and they have been scrambling to limit problems. Of 253 storm-damaged schools that serve as voting centers, 203 were temporarily repaired with tarps and other quick fixes, the government said. Those that couldn’t be fixed will have tents to serve as polling stations. About 467 tents have been positioned around the country.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which recently received about $5 million from the U.S. government after the State Department reversed course on providing electoral assistance to Haiti, has cleared some secondary roads. It also increased the number of helicopter drops, and employed 600 porters — double the number from last year — to get ballots and other voting materials into cut-off communities either on foot or on the backs of motorcycles and mules.

Organization of American States elections observers, who along with 4,246 local observers will be keeping an eye on the voting, also spent the week seeing if they could reach some hard-hit communities.

“We are taking all of the measures possible so that this time around, we have elections that are acceptable, honest and credible that have been organized; elections that allow us to divorce with the practice that used to exist for 28 to 29 years,” said Uder Antoine, the executive director of Haiti’s elections body, which is being supported by UNOPS. “It is time for us to show that we can do things differently. I remain convinced that it can happen.”

While the elections body, which was forced to move the vote from Oct. 9 to Nov. 20 because of Matthew’s devastation, put new procedures and controls in place to avoid a repeat of last year’s electoral chaos and distrust, there are some things that remain out of its control. Not only is Matthew’s aftermath threatening to produce low voter turnout in the South and Grand’Anse regions where 140,000 remain in shelters, but overall turnout could take a hit if a storm churning in the Caribbean Sea unleashes heavy rains.

Earlier this month, northern Haiti, which was spared Matthew’s wrath, suffered deadly flash floods. The rain continued to wreak havoc this week as Cap-Haitien and other northern cities remained encased in mud and flooding cut off access to some areas. The Northern region has the second-largest electorate, while the West has the largest with about 42 percent. A rained-out election in either could spell trouble for candidates who are strong in those regions.

“Outside of people risking their lives, they need to go out and vote,” Antoine said. “We can’t keep postponing.”

Of the presidential contenders, only six are in the forefront. Four of those — Jovenel Moïse, Jude Célestin, Jean-Charles Moïse (no relation) and Maryse Narcisse — are regarded as front-runners based on their showings from the discarded vote and recent campaigning.

All have claimed that they will win on the first round, a feat that elections experts say will be difficult and a scenario some hope to avoid, given the messy conditions under which the vote is taking place. The political urgency aside, some critics say the fact that there is no political agreement among the candidates recognizing the difficulty and agreeing to accept the results, is worrisome. Also worrisome is that no one is preparing the public opinion for a different outcome, which could unleash violence during the eight to 10 days that Haitians are expected to wait for results.

While voters like Maliya Mondesir, who has been sleeping at a neighbor’s house here since Matthew ripped off her roof, said she’s ready to go to the polls — “Everybody has an elected president, so why can’t we?” — others say they have no intention of heading to the polls.

“I am not into this voting thing at all; there won’t be any voting in this neighborhood,” said Lucia Pierre, 49, who lives in Baie-de-Henne in northwest Haiti, which was also battered by Matthew. “Every day you’re going from house to house to see where you can spend the night. We haven’t received any help.”

Candidates have tried to use the storm to their advantage. Jovenel Moïse, who choose small meetings over big rallies in the final days of campaigning, said he used campaign money to provide seeds to storm victims to regrow their crops. Narcisse distributed bags of rice in the South, and Célestin, the former head of the state construction agency, cleared roads and rivers in the West and North regions from behind the wheel of an excavator. But it might not be enough to persuade voters to head to the polls, observers say.

Not only is there a percentage of voters in the North and the Matthew-affected areas who stand to be disenfranchised because of impassable roads despite best efforts at repairs, but there is also the matter of missing national voter identification cards. Only 6,000 people out of the 2.1 million impacted by the storm reapplied for the cards.

The low number means either many didn’t lose their cards, or it’s an indication that many Haitians are more concerned about filling their bellies than ballots.

“While core supporters of key candidates will most likely go to the polls, citizens less beholden to a particular candidate and to the election process itself have other pressing, daily concerns that occupy them,” said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at George Washington University who recently returned from Cap-Haitien, where he saw the devastating impact of the recent rains and floods first hand.

Many fear that turnout, which was about 24 percent in last year’s presidential first round, will be even lower, not just because of the disaster, but because many are unmotivated to vote as a result of the failures of previous governments to ameliorate their lives.

“The CEP and interim government have persisted in their effort to improve the electoral process,” Maguire said. “[But] they cannot force people who are distracted by other pressing needs or who have become apathetic to the idea that elections can bring sustained improvements to their lives, to go to the polls.”

Another concern that could impact Sunday’s turnout is the fear of violence following a recent prison break and the seizure of several shipment of illegal arms.

The joint U.N. and Haitian police patrol that visited Etienne, the school director, are part of a deployment of nearly 13,000 security forces throughout the country, including 9,400 Haitian National Police officers. It’s the largest deployment of Haitian police, said U.N. Police Commissioner Brigadier General Georges-Pierre Monchotte.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “ I will not assure you that all will be perfect, but we are working for that.”

As part of the security plan, voting centers have once more been designated red, amber and green and officers will be assigned accordingly with red most critical and likely for trouble. The U.N. also has deployed 500 vehicles and the first responders will be the Haitian National police.

At stake is not just having an elected government to address the needs of those affected by the recent disasters, but Haiti’s future. Economic growth has slowed, inflation is at more than 10 percent, some 55,000 people are still living in tents nearly seven years after the quake, and the continued crisis has discouraged national and foreign investments.

Meanwhile, the election of Republican Donald Trump could also adversely affect Haiti, which is heavily dependent on remittances from its diaspora.

Honoré, the U.N. representative, said it’s a positive sign that the presidential candidates have all raised similar themes of increased economic growth, development and investments in their discourse, even if they all don’t agree on how to go about it.

The United Nations peacekeepers, who arrived in Haiti in 2004, has been waiting on an elected government to begin its departure. Last month, the U.N. Security Council extended peacekeepers’ mandate for six months until the elections. But Honoré said Sunday’s vote is bigger than the future of the peacekeeping mission.

“People want to see increased development in Haiti; people want to see increased investment in the country, both foreign direct investment and investments by the national private sector; people want to ensure that there are opportunities for their children,” she said.

As the campaigning came to a close Friday, both Jovenel Moïse and Célestin, the two men who made the runoff last time, declared their intentions to win and to guard their votes Sunday. As they retraced their campaign stops, each issued a final plea.