The World Closely Watches the Success of the Upcoming Presidential Vote

By Don Bohning
Published December 11th 2005 in Miami Herald
In a land where nothing is as certain as uncertainty, Haitians will -- maybe -- pick a new president early next year in an election in which both the country and the international community have much at stake.

After at least three postponements under a dysfunctional electoral council and amid ongoing internal turmoil, a first-round vote is set for Jan. 8.

If no candidate gets 50 percent plus one of the total vote in the first round, a runoff will be held Feb. 15 between the two top vote-getters.

With 35 presidential candidates now listed, it would seem unlikely that any would get the required absolute majority to win in the first round.

What Haiti won't be able to do under the latest electoral timetable, despite intense international pressure, particularly from the United States, is inaugurate a new president on the constitutionally mandated date of Feb. 7, 2006.

Symbolically, the date marks the 20th anniversary of an end to nearly three decades of the repressive and often-brutal Duvalier family dictatorship, and is enshrined in the 1987 constitution as Inauguration Day. But it has become painfully obvious to all that credible elections could not be carried out in time to meet that date, given the electoral council disarray and the monumental logistical problems in a rugged country lacking in modern infrastructure.

Feb. 24 has been set as the new inauguration day.

ENDS INTERIM RULE

Practically, and more significantly, the election will end two years of rule under an interim government, widely viewed as unpopular and inept, installed after the Feb. 29, 2004, departure into exile of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, under heavy U.S. and French pressure.

Meanwhile, many in the international community, as well as Haitians, closely watch the upcoming vote, which will be the first election of any kind there since disputed parliamentary and presidential balloting in 2000.

Successful and credible elections would mean a government accepted as legitimate by the international community, enabling the country to move forward economically and politically. That would help bring badly needed stability to a country that has seen two foreign military interventions since 1994, and promote greater security throughout the Caribbean.

For the United States, and Florida particularly, an election result that is accepted by the voters would alleviate fears of yet another uncontrolled exodus of Haitians -- legal and illegal -- fleeing continued internal turmoil.

It would also provide a more stable environment to combat the flow of drugs through the country to the United States.

What is at stake here is Haiti's political legitimacy, economic revival and general stabilization,'' says Claude Beauboeuf, a Haitian economic consultant and analyst. A successful electoral process would allow the country to start improving the business climate, decreasing transaction costs, refurbishing its international reputation and start attracting local, diaspora and international investment.''

80 PERCENT REGISTERED

Some 80 percent of the country's estimated 4.5 million eligible voters have been registered.

They will select a president and a 129-member parliament, including 30 senators and 99 deputies. Local elections for some 10,000 regional and municipal officials are scheduled March 5.

But the balloting has been repeatedly delayed because of the enormousness of the task and the ineptness of the interim government and the Provisional Electoral Council [CEP], the body charged with carrying out the elections.

''From the start, the CEP has been plagued with rivalry, bureaucratic ineptitude, technical shortcomings and charges of partisanship and corruption,'' concludes a recent report on Haiti by the International Crisis Group, a respected nongovernmental organization based in Brussels.

The Oct. 18 appointment of Jacques Bernard, a prominent and well-regarded banker, as director general of CEP operations helped put order back into the process, says the Crisis Group, while adding that ``his authority was not defined and he faces some resistance from CEP members.''

UNPOPULAR

Neither is the interim government, installed following Aristide's departure, held in much higher regard. It has been accused of both cronyism and incompetence. It also has added to the electoral confusion by overruling the country's Supreme Court on eligibility of presidential candidates.

More recently, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue announced Dec. 27 as a new election date, apparently without consulting with the CEP, which days later made it Jan. 8.

Some observers have suggested both the interim government and the electoral council are deliberately dragging their feet in order to prolong the process and their positions. In addition, the interim government has been criticized by international human rights activists for its ongoing detention of Yvon Neptune, Aristide's former prime minister, and Gérard Jean-Juste, a Roman Catholic priest and staunch Aristide supporter.

''No one wants the transitional government to continue,'' says one foreign official involved in the process. ``The only purpose of the transitional government is to get to elections. They finally got the message.''

KIDNAPPINGS, CRIME

In addition to the bureaucratic disarray of the electoral council and the interim government, there are other difficulties that will make any election here difficult. Key one is the ongoing problem of the kidnappings for ransom, down from earlier this year but still averaging more than two a day.

Also, there is the corrupt and ineffective police force. Mario Andresol, a respected police officer who fled the country under Aristide and took over as police chief earlier this year, acknowledged in an October interview after touring the country's police units that ``there is a large corruption problem. About a quarter of the force is involved in corruption, kidnappings and even arms trafficking.''

Criminal activity continues as well. A new report by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey organization estimates there are some 210,000 firearms in Haiti, with only about 26,000 of them in the hands of United Nations peacekeepers and Haitian authorities. It also estimates that 1,600 people have died since Aristide's flight into exile.

GANG INFLUENCE

Unchecked gang violence, much of it perpetrated by pro-Aristide gangs known as chimeres, continues -- although there is disagreement about how much of an obstacle to the electoral process these pose.

Juan Gabriel Valdés, the United Nations special envoy in Haiti, acknowledged in a recent interview with The Associated Press that chimeres still controlled some parts of the capital. Haitian sources report, however, the 7,600 U.N. peacekeepers in the country -- led by Brazilians -- have cracked down in recent weeks in some of the known chimere strongholds such as Cité Soleil and Cité Militaire and that ''security should not be an issue'' come election day.

A major obstacle to the process, however, could be the ''winner-take-all'' nature of Haitian politics, in which an election sometimes creates more problems than it resolves.

Haitian elections have long been based on the idea that ''to the winner belongs the spoils,'' rather than compromise and reconciliation for the betterment of the nation.

As a result, ''Haiti's elections have historically exacerbated, not alleviated, its political and social divisions,'' observed the International Crisis Group.

Under the current electoral system a candidate polling more than 50 percent in the first round is automatically elected. By manipulating the first round, as Aristide's Lavalas party did in the disputed 2000 parliamentary elections, it won overwhelming control of the Senate, exacerbating already-existing political antagonisms.

''Many of us, including Haitians, believe there is a fatal flaw in the election process,'' said Robert Maguire, a longtime Haiti specialist who now heads the Haiti program at Trinity University in Washington. ``There is no proportional representation. The winner takes all, promotes an adversarial relationship. If a party wins 10 percent or some arbitrary number it should have representation in parliament.''

Proportional representation would assure a healthy parliamentary opposition.

However, with the upcoming election carried out under international supervision and with a multitude of parties and candidates, the new president may face the reverse problem of fragmentation rather than dominance.

As the International Crisis Group also suggests, ``few experts expect any party to win a substantial bloc of [parliamentary] seats, let alone a majority, leaving much of the nation's crucial governance Byzantine and likely paralyzing maneuvers.''

That means the new president, whoever it may be, will face not only the prospect of parliamentary gridlock, but the monumental task of undertaking drastic reforms in a wide array of governmental institutions, from justice and security to finance and education.

A significant but unknown factor affecting the election outcome is what level of Aristide's support remains among Haiti's poor masses and whether it will go to candidates identified with his Lavalas Family Party. If it does, it could benefit Marc Bazin, or even René Préval, although Aristide has said from South African exile that he is backing no one. [See box at right.]

OUTCOME?

So, what could the outcome be?

''Haiti could gradually transform itself into a Caribbean Mauritius [a well-governed island nation in the Indian Ocean off Africa] if the electoral process succeeds; or a Caribbean Somaghanistan should it fail, a mixture of Somalia and Afghanistan,'' says Beauboeuf.

''The country has a lot of potential to perform well at many levels,'' adds Beauboeuf. ``Nevertheless, it has eloquently proven that it has the potential to become, as well, a very unstable place should its structures collapse.''

No matter the election outcome, success will also depend heavily on continued economic and security support by the international community, and particularly the United States, if it is to prevent Haiti from becoming a failed state.

Don Bohning is a former Herald Latin America editor who covered Haiti from 1967 to 2000. He also is the author of The Castro Obsession: U.S. Cover Operations Against Cuba 1959-1965, recently published by Potomac Books, Inc.