Haiti elections: A critical test for country, police force

A convoy of U.N. police officers rolled into the seaside village of Jacmel just days before Haiti’s critical elections to restore parliament, three years after they were do. The U.N. has deployed its police officers across the country to shore up Haiti’s National Police force, which is taking the security lead.
A convoy of U.N. police officers rolled into the seaside village of Jacmel just days before Haiti’s critical elections to restore parliament, three years after they were do. The U.N. has deployed its police officers across the country to shore up Haiti’s National Police force, which is taking the security lead. Miami Herald staff

Jonas Saint-Lys sat in the bare bones elections office with the cracking paint, no electricity and voters’ lists plastered on the exterior walls, waiting for the cell to ring.

“We are moving along,” he said, “even if there are still things not yet clear for us.”

Days before Sunday’s critical vote, elections officials across Haiti were in a last-minute dash to train polling station workers and move millions of ballots and other voting materials into some of the most remote reaches of the country. Political parties, meanwhile, were scrambling Saturday to get IDs for their monitors to be able to witness the process inside after the Provisional Electoral Council failed to grant them on time.

But for many in Haiti, where elections have long been synonymous with violence, it is security on election day that is of concern. It is helping fuel a climate of apathy among voters, many of whom fear for their lives and don’t believe the vote is worth it.

“A lot of people in the population are scared, wondering if they go to vote will they be shot at,” said Saint-Lys, the only official inside the Marigot elections office with transportation, a motorcycle, in case something happens. “I believe if the [Provisional Electoral Council] and the police respect their word and give us security, the elections will go well.”

Delayed since 2012, the long-awaited legislative elections to fill 20 Senate and 119 Chamber of Deputies’ seats aren’t just about restoring a defunct parliament. They are also a vital and necessary exercise to see whether this crisis-plagued nation can hold elections that are not only fair and credible, but also secure.

“Violence is not in it,” Prime Minister Evans Paul told a crowd attending a Friday night rally in Port-au-Prince for President Michel Martelly’s PHTK party hours before the legislative campaigning closed at midnight. “We are determined to have clean elections.”

The international community, led by the U.N. Stabilization Mission, has been working to shore up the Haitian National Police’s ability to, for the first time, take the lead in providing security for the electoral cycle. There are close to 12,000 police officers for the population of 11 million.

Mapping the incidents in the 2010 elections over voting centers’ geographical locations, areas’ risk for violence because of the political actors and the strength of the nearby police presence, the U.N. and Haitian police produced a color-coded risk assessment for election day.

Election observers, for example, have been handed the assessment with the 1,508 voting centers coded either red, green or amber, and told to note the number of HNP officers they see.

The observation is critical. In the 2010 elections, police at polling stations showed little effort to prevent fraud. They were also invisible during the chaos that ensued, recalls a former senior U.N. official.

It was the U.N. mission, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH, that had to protect key electoral buildings — including the elections headquarters in Petionville.

“People are asking what’s the level of capacity and the readiness of the HNP and the real test is the elections,” UN Police Commissioner Serge Therriault told the Miami Herald. “The goal for this election is really to see the HNP demonstrate that they have the ability, if not all of the capacity, to securely manage the elections so that people could go in and express their democratic right to vote.”

Since 2012, the U.N. has been withdrawing from seven of the 10 departments, leaving the policing to local authorities. To help make up for this, more than 7,000 Haitian police officers were to be deployed throughout the territory while the U.N. police also deployed extra units.

The success of the security plan is critical, observers say, for not just the legislative vote but also for the scheduled Oct. 25 presidential elections. Those elections will also include legislative run offs and balloting for more than 5,000 local posts countrywide.

“I’m confident they’ve got the capacity to do it,” Therriault, said about the police, which held up material distributions in some parts of the country because of internal conflicts over their daily allowances for the event.

“It’s not just based on spreading them out throughout the country,” he added, “it’s really targeting the zones and the areas which are foreseen as being more problematic.”

On Wednesday, as Saint-Lys waited for the call to help transport ballots to an isolated voting center two hours away on foot, a U.N. police convey rolled into the region.

With its unpaved, rocky roads, isolated mountaintop villages and vulnerability to drive-by motorcycle shootings, the southeast has been identified as one of the regions at high risk for voting day violence. (The others are the Artibonite Valley, Grand’Anse and the Central Plateau.)

Recent reports of clashes between supporters of President Michel Martelly’s PHTK party and opposition candidates have only only heightened concerns. Two weeks earlier, a popular school director and mayoral candidate, Pierre Lafond, was killed while attending a nearby community festival. His killer remains at large.

“There is no security,” said Cyprien Saint-Lise, the mother of three of Lafond’s children.

While international officials monitoring elections are reluctant to say that Lafond’s death, is elections-related, a grief-stricken Saint-Lise, 46, insists that it is.

“He would have never been at [that festival], if he wasn’t a candidate,” she said. “I told him that these elections would be the death of him.”

Edmonde Supplice Beauzile, a presidential candidate and the head of the Fusion political party that Lafond was running under, said the violence and acts of intimidation greatly concerns her. A number of those incidents, she said, has taken place in the southeast.

“I feel like there are departments, the southeast, the Artibonite, the Central Plateau where you won’t be able to hold elections,” said Beauzile, noting that candidates have told her they have seen brand new arms in some of their communities like Mirebalais in the Central Plateau. “I don’t yet see security for the elections. As far as I see, there could be lot of blood shed.”

All of the political parties have denounced the violence, and accused opponents of intimidating supporters, shooting at one another and ripping up campaign posters.

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The clashes, say voters, have overshadowed what should have been a campaign about issues and transforming Haiti, where a drought and devalued domestic currency is making life difficult.

“These are the first elections in my life I’ve seen like this,” said Antoine Izanbear, 63, a farmer in the hills of Jacmel. “I can’t say to you here is a senator or deputy candidate, who has approached me to try and get my vote, or held a meeting for the people. They know they don’t need the people, so it makes you wonder, if they plan to win by stealing the vote.”

Law enforcement officials and others closely monitoring the electoral period acknowledge there is real fear and concern in the population. But the actual violence leading up to the vote, they say, doesn’t correspond with the fear and concern.

“It’s less violent than in the previous electoral cycle,” Therriault, the UN police chief said, noting he believes that on Sunday, “people will express their right to vote.”

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