Haiti’s presidential elections dilemma: to recount or not?

Kenneth Merten talks Haiti elections

Kenneth Merten, Haiti's special coordinator and deputy assistant secretary in the bureau of western hemisphere affairs, discusses Haiti's election and how it's coping.
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Kenneth Merten, Haiti's special coordinator and deputy assistant secretary in the bureau of western hemisphere affairs, discusses Haiti's election and how it's coping.

A new elections commission took charge of Haiti’s disputed electoral process Wednesday, its nine members taking the oath of office before a panel of judges and members of the country’s newly installed caretaker government.

The swearing in came less than 24 hours after provisional President Jocelerme Privert issued a presidential order re-establishing the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), and nearly two months after the process was postponed for a second time against mounting tensions over allegations of widespread electoral fraud and increasing security concerns.

“What the president of the republic had to do concerning the elections, he has done it,” presidential spokesman Serge Simon said shortly before the ceremony. “Now, it is the CEP that will need to evaluate the situation and see how it will advance.”

Under a Feb. 5 political agreement establishing Haiti’s 120-day interim government, the country should hold its postponed runoffs on April 24, and transfer power to a new president on May 14. But Haitian elections experts and political observers have said the elections date is technically impossible.

With the exception of media representative Léopold Berlanger, who served on a previous CEP, the majority of members are new to the electoral process. They will need weeks, if not months, experts say, to familiarize themselves with pulling off an election with 5.8 million registered voters and 10,000 polling stations.

At the same time, the council will have to figure out how much more money is required for the balloting. Millions of dollars went up in flames in January after ballots, elections materials and voting centers around the country were set ablaze by protesters on the eve of the vote.

Simon said while he doesn’t know exactly how much of the estimated $70 million to $80 million elections price tag has been spent, only 6 percent of the funding — the amount left of Haiti’s contribution — is available to stage a second round.

And then there is the question about what to do about the country’s disputed Oct. 25 presidential first round and fraud-and-violence Aug. 9 legislative first round.

“The mission is not easy,” said Berlanger, speaking on behalf of his fellow members, during the Higher Court swearing-in.

Later at the elections headquarters in Petionville, CEP member and attorney Carlos Hercules said the group will work to avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors, some of whom were accused of accepting bribes in exchange for awarding legislative posts.

While one CEP member had resigned before the Oct. 25 presidential first round, six others including CEP President Pierre-Louis Opont, resigned afterward. Meanwhile, one of them, Jaccéus Joseph, refused to sign the final election results pitting government backed-candidate Jovenel Moïse against opposition candidate Jude Célestin.

Célestin, who placed second behind Moïse, had called the results a “ridiculous farce,” and joined a coalition of eight opposition presidential candidates, dubbed the G8, in denouncing the process. Refusing to campaign until the recommendations of a special commission for sweeping changes to improve the vote were made, he rejected U.S. pressure to run and announced his boycott of the Jan. 24 runoff.

Moïse, who was handpicked by former President Michel Martelly, meanwhile, has rejected the fraud claims. He’s demanding that the runoff take place as soon as possible and is accusing the opposition of “crying fraud because they were afraid of losing power for five years.”

Local electoral observers and opposition groups are pushing for a verification of the vote to determine not only who should be in the runoff, but whether some parliamentarians were fraudulently elected. It is the only way, they argue, for Haiti to avoid a repeat of the 318 elections-related protests that paralyzed the country last year, according to a United Nations tally.

Such a deep investigation, however, is opposed by some in the international community. As recently as last month, U.S. Ambassador David Pressman, the alternate representative to the United Nations for special political affairs, told the U.N. Security Council that “neither we nor international observation missions sent by the European Union and the Organization of American States found proof of massive and widespread fraud” in the presidential vote.

Foreign diplomats and donors fear that any further verification risks deepening the political crisis and derailing the electoral process altogether.

“It’s critical to have a new government; to have a new government you need an elections, which will decide who the Haitian people, in the final analysis, decide to elect,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, which met with other donors Tuesday at the State Department Tuesday to discuss Haiti’s dwindling foreign aid portfolio. “This to me is the most single important issue, to make sure this election get done.”

On Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby, anticipating the re-establishment of the new CEP, encouraged the new body “to quickly implement the technical recommendations of the Independent Electoral Evaluation Commission, designed to improve the transparency and fairness of the final round.”

That commission issued a scathing report in December that found, among other things, the presidential vote was plagued by an extreme number of irregularities, including fraud and voter registration errors. It recommended sweeping changes to the electoral machinery as well as a new CEP before the final round.

Whether that deeper analysis takes place —and what form it embodies — will be up to the new CEP, which will need to decide on a new elections calendar.

Simon, the spokesman, said Privert has had several meetings with opposition candidates, political parties and various groups in Haitian society about the need for a verification commission.

“They all tell him one thing: Is it something that wasn’t right that brought us here today? And if something wasn’t right, has it been resolved?,” he said.

But Rosny Desroches, a member of the electoral evaluation commission formed by Martelly, warned that a recount to determine how the 54 presidential candidates placed, will not be easy. In fact, it it may also be impossible, he said during a morning news program on Radio Magik 9 in Port-au-Prince.

“It’s a very technical method and they have to agree about what method they will use,” said Desroches, whose observer group is instead calling for improved training and recruitment of poll workers.

“It’s not a question that is just technical, it’s also very political,” he added. “Some people are asking for verification because they want to eliminate people and some are asking for it because they want to eliminate the process. Whatever the results that are given, you are going to have enemies.”

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