Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Haiti Tuesday with a chance to help avoid what the Herald Editorial Board warned may be “another disastrous train-wreck” of an election. There is still time to switch Haiti’s elections onto an acceptable track, and the United States can play an important role in that process. But fair elections will only happen if Kerry ensures that the Martelly administration and the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) make fundamental changes to restore voter confidence.
As most observers — the Haitian and international press, and Haitian human-rights and electoral observation groups — have noted, Haiti’s Aug. 9 first-round legislative elections featured systematic voter suppression. Thugs associated with political parties —especially President Michel Martelly’s parties — attacked voting centers early and often, closing many, destroying voting materials and convincing untold numbers of voters to stay safely at home.
Police systematically failed to intervene. Rural Haitians walked hours down mountain trails, only to be turned away by thugs outside voting centers or political-party representatives within. Eighty-two percent of eligible voters did not vote.
Of the ballots that were cast, nearly one of every four was not counted because polling stations’ tally sheets were destroyed, lost or discarded.
The most outrageous development of all may be the refusal of the CEP, the Martelly administration and the international community to recognize the problems that everyone else saw. Before either the voting or the thuggery ended on Aug. 9, the European Union deemed the voting “nearly perfectly normal.” Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Pamela White called them “not perfect, but acceptable.”
Under pressure, the CEP announced reruns in areas where fewer than 70 percent of the tally sheets failed to make the results, meaning where 29 percent of the votes were discarded, and many more not even cast because of obstruction, the results stand.
This would be a crushingly low standard for “not perfect, but acceptable” in any election, but here it is compounded by two important factors. First, as even European Union officials concede, the destruction and intimidation appeared planned to suppress votes in opposition parties’ strongholds. Second, Aug. 9 was the first of three rounds of voting scheduled this year, so it sets a precedent. The precedent set so far is “crime pays.”
There are many reasons to believe that the next rounds of Haiti’s elections — starting Oct. 25 — can be better. First, past elections have been better. Presidential elections in 2006 were controversial, but only 3 percent to 8 percent of the tally sheets were excluded, and there was a broad consensus that the winner, René Preval, really did have the most voter support. Second, Haitian voters make valiant efforts when they believe elections will be fair. Presidential elections in 2006 and 2000 had turnouts of 59 percent and 78 percent, respectively. Recently, I attended a press conference including unsuccessful voters from rural Saut d’Eau who had been turned around at gunpoint after walking for hours. They insisted that the government and CEP needed to stop the intimidation and improve voter access — but they also promised to make that walk again on Oct. 25 if improvements were made.
Kerry will point out that he is not driving the Haiti elections train, but he also knows that the United States supplies most of the elections’ fuel — $25 million contributed so far, with more on the way. Kerry’s State Department, therefore, can set incentives for the CEP, government and political parties.
On Tuesday, Kerry has a historic opportunity to transform the incentives from the current “crime pays” to encouraging the fair, inclusive elections that Haitian voters deserve. Maximizing this opportunity will require him to publicly link continued U.S. support for the elections to verifiable promises of fundamental change adequate to restore the voter confidence that was squandered on Aug. 9.
Brian Concannon Jr. is executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.