Haiti

In presidential vote, Haiti’s most important figure may be elections chief

Supporters of presidential candidate Maryse Narcisse chant slogans against legislators in front of a police barricade near the entrance to the parliament building during a demonstration in support of interim President Jocelerme Privert, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, June 21, 2016. The demonstrators are demanding the extension of the expired mandate of the interim president Privert.
Supporters of presidential candidate Maryse Narcisse chant slogans against legislators in front of a police barricade near the entrance to the parliament building during a demonstration in support of interim President Jocelerme Privert, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, June 21, 2016. The demonstrators are demanding the extension of the expired mandate of the interim president Privert. AP

In Haiti, where the presidential election has been so fraught with problems that it will be rerun in October, the man in charge of making sure the votes count says the biggest change from the previous election will be how poll watchers are accredited.

Blank accreditation cards that allowed nearly 1 million poll watchers — political party representatives known as mandataires — to potentially cast multiple ballots at any polling place they fancied are out, said Léopold Berlanger. Now, poll watchers will be assigned to the voting centers and polling stations where they are registered, reducing the likelihood of fraud.

And that’s not the only change. The names of cheaters will be published, the details of their crimes publicized.

“There need to be sanctions applied so that people will be afraid to do what they are doing,” said Berlanger, the president of the nine-member Provisional Electoral Council, which is responsible for organizing the elections’ logistics.

This time around, he said, Haiti’s 5.8 million registered voters, poll watchers and candidates will be on notice that there would be punishment “and that would not be good for them.”

Berlanger, sitting in his Petionville headquarters, a former Gold’s Gym in the hills above Port-au-Prince, has promised sweeping reforms to blunt criticism of Haiti’s election process that led to its last democratically elected president, Michel Martelly, leaving office in February without an elected successor. But the elections timetable, which allows a two-month respite between the Oct. 9 first round and Jan. 8 runoff, is one thing that he’s not planning to change.

The timetable has been a sticking point. The international community, led by the United States, wants a democratically elected president and government in office as soon as possible. Under the current timetable, the new president will not take office until Feb. 7 but the elections cycle wouldn’t end until April 2017 — more than two years after elections began.

Meanwhile, some Haitian lawmakers have accused interim President Jocelerme Privert of dragging out the election to stay in office longer. His fate is scheduled to be decided on Tuesday in the National Assembly, two weeks after his 120-day mandate expired on June 14.

“We have drastically reduced the calendar in every way possible,” Berlanger said in an exclusive interview with the Miami Herald.

But he understands the frustration of those who want to see a swift end to the election: “The way that the electoral system has evolved in Haiti, it has certain aspects in it that, it’s like, you only see in Haiti.”

A longtime behind-the-scenes player in Haiti’s dysfunctional democracy, Berlanger could well become the most important figure in this country in the coming months as Haiti struggles to resume its interrupted elections amid rising insecurity and political uncertainty. Berlanger believes it’s time for Haiti to consider fingerprint identification or electronic transmission to cut down on its all-too-familiar destabilizing, post-election tensions.

A lot of candidates means a lot of time spent in a series of steps in the elections.

Léopold Berlanger, Haiti elections chief

If a drastic modification of the election calendar was possible, it became more difficult last week. Contrary to Berlanger’s predictions that the rerun of October’s disputed first-round presidential vote would not draw a crowded field, 27 candidates — half of the original 54 —confirmed their participation by the registration deadline.

“A lot of candidates means a lot of time spent in a series of steps in the elections,” he said.

And most time consuming of all? The election challenges period.

Hoping to reduce lengthy court challenges, and the kind of chaotic, flawed electoral process that triggered allegations of massive fraud from a wide array of Haitian society and plunged the country of nearly 11 million into a constitutional crisis, Berlanger said the council known as the CEP has no choice but to make changes.

These include gradually releasing elections results as they are tabulated, rather than the customary 10 days afterward. He also says poll workers and supervisors will receive more training and deeper scrutiny during recruitment. Critics are skeptical of the efforts, though, saying they don’t expect any groundbreaking results from the overhaul of the poll workers and supervisors because they are easily bought.

“We can’t fix everything at the same time,” Berlanger said. “But we can’t appear here and say we’re going to do elections the same way that it was done, which produced problems.”

27 candidates out of initial 54 have agreed to rerun Haiti presidential election

Berlanger’s crackdown on poll watchers and local elections observers is being welcomed by some observers who say the measures will work, if adopted, especially the changes to the accreditation cards.

“We will print the cards and provide them already filled out. We will not give people the possibility to go and fill out their own cards,” Berlanger said. “We will also assign them to the place where they will vote. This means someone won’t be able to leave one voting place and go to another and vote.”

Several reports on the previous election concluded that the poll watchers or mandataires polluted the voting process. The 915,675 cards that were distributed to political party representatives and observers allowed for uncontrollable, multiple voting and were sold on voting day for as little as $3. They were at the root of the fraud and irregularities that tainted the vote, members of a special verification commission said. The controversial five-member Independent Electoral Verification Commission (CIEVE) was created by Privert to evaluate and audit the balloting.

The accreditation cards, the commission’s 104-page report noted, contributed to 40 percent of the votes it audited being untraceable.

The European Union, U.S. State Department and others have taken issue with the commission’s findings. The EU has publicly questioned the commission’s methodology and the report’s “conceptual weaknesses,” and the United States maintains that the panel didn’t prove fraud. The final results, pitting Jovenel Moïse against Jude Célestin in a second round, remained the same after the audit, a U.S. official pointed out.

“Our approach is more one of innocent until proven guilty. In the absence of proof of extensive fraud you accept the results and you move on,” the US. official said. “No elections is perfect. What you do is try and fix the weaknesses the next time. The problems that there were with mandataires and the observers, can be fixed in the second round without redoing the first round.”

Berlanger said he finds the international community’s “attitude bizarre.”

“Identification is a fundamental issue in any election,” he said. “I don’t believe that an election can take place in any country where practically 40 percent of the people who voted can’t be traced.”

The State should do all that is necessary to take control of the elections with domestic means.

Interim Haiti President Jocelerme Privert

Last week, Berlanger submitted an elections budget to the executive. The cost of re-running the presidential race, along with one-third of the Senate and local elections on Jan. 8, he said, is $55 million. There’s only $8.2 million left in a United Nations elections fund that the international community contributed to last year.

It’s not yet decided if the U.S., which already contributed $33 million toward last year’s vote, which cost $100 million, will provide any additional funding, the U.S. official said.

Berlanger maintains Haiti should pay for its own election, saying that “elections are what show that you are truly a sovereign nation. You can’t depend on another country to pay for your elections.”

Privert, the interim president now battling to stay on after failing to organize elections before the February accord expired, agreed.

“I won’t say that we have this $55 million stashed somewhere.” he told the Herald. “But what I will say is that the state should do all that is necessary to take control of the elections with domestic means. We are not saying that we don’t need international support.”

While Tuesday’s vote on Privert’s fate could determine how quickly the elections are held — by law, only the country’s president can call voters to the polls — ultimately it will be the CEP that decides whether Haiti slips deeper into crisis or lifts itself out of the current political turmoil by finally putting a democratically elected president in office.

“There are a lot of people who didn’t think we would have achieved the steps that we already had,” Berlanger said. “They didn’t think we would have been able to publish an elections calendar or manage the situation with the commission. ... We’ve achieved several steps that show we have taken our responsibility and we’re showing results.”

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