Haiti’s Fractured Political Dynamics

This commentary was originally published in Democracy & Society on March 12, 2022.

The Setting

The fragile consensus among much of the international community toward pushing for national elections in Haiti this calendar year is not matched by the political reality on the ground. But this push by the United States and others translates into an endorsement of interim prime minister Ariel Henry’s preferred timetable; it also demonstrates an absence of interest in the wide civil society and political alternative known as the Montana Accord. The accord envisions an interim governance structure while rebuilding national consensus on key issues such as reform of the 1987 constitution, giving time to rebuild the country’s elections machinery.

While this proposed two-plus-year interim may appear risky to international actors, experienced observers of Haiti’s electoral dynamics underscore the notion that rushing toward elections in 2022 is not only unrealistic but also very dangerous for both voters and candidates. Undergirding this reality is also a fractured political party community which, rather than reinforcing the practice of democratic governance, probably energizes its dysfunction. Haiti’s chaotic electoral dynamics and flawed political party environment frames Haiti’s unhappy experience since the collapse of the Duvalier regime in 1986. This has accelerated over the past two decades to translate into a series of electoral fiascos, matched up with a quasi-permanent international political and sometimes peacekeeping presence. Little of this has consolidated democratic governance, let alone done much for the well-being of most Haitians. 

Haiti’s Political Universe: Civil Society and Political Parties

Haiti’s political and institutional backdrop points to a nation whose centralized national authority resides in a small urban constituency—whether associated with the country’s international commercial activity or those representing the political governing class. This has sometimes translated into a divisive feature of Haitian political dynamics, highlighted by the failure over the past decades to translate the promises of electoral democracy into sustainable and measurable outcomes. This has had political implications, reinforcing for the average citizen (and many critics of Haitian governance) the perception—and sometimes the reality—of the exploitative character of elites. 

This generalization calls for a closer look at two key overlapping sectors: civil society and political parties. Counterintuitively perhaps, but most likely as a consequence of the disjointedness of Haiti’s political experience over the past three decades, civil society has developed into a diverse community. Some of it is now representative of modern social or political pressure groups typical of democratic environments (human rights organizations, local community interests, women’s groups, students/youth, labor unions, and the media) that have found some space to prosper.

The late president Jovenel Moïse’s troubled presidency gave rise to several broad coalitions of civil society and political party actors trying to cobble together transitional frameworks (notably the Marriott Agreement and the Passerelle Committee). Likewise, the massive embezzlement of PetroCaribe funding created impressive street-level action in the 2018–19 timeframe with the “petrochallengers,” a loosely coordinated, mostly youth coalition pushing for greater accountability and transparency—until protests became violent. But none of this led to satisfactory outcomes. The question now is whether the Montana Accord faces the same odds. The product of the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, Montana’s virtue is its broad scope of national representation: over 180 organizations drawn from religious groups, women’s and farmers’ constituencies, bar associations, labor unions, political parties, and human rights groups. Its challenge lies in translating its significant civil society consensus into a convincing national governance structure—with interim prime minister Henry remaining in office, not only is the process at an impasse, but all sides may be on the losing end of future developments.

Not far under the surface is a more divisive feature of Haitian civil society with the roles played by elites—whether associated with the country’s commercial activity or those representing the political governing class. By definition a smaller but very visible constituency, “elites” is also a somewhat messy catch-all euphemism to which most if not all of Haiti’s national governance failures are assigned. That’s too easy. Nonetheless, the opaqueness of these elite networks, let alone their collective failures over the past decades to translate the promises of electoral democracy into modern and sustainable outcomes measurable by the average citizen, has reinforced the perception—and the occasional reality—of the exploitative character of elites. 

Arguably, the cumulative ravages of Haiti’s crises have undermined the emergence of credible national leadership. This has affected the political party milieu, anchored more by personalities than by distinct, let alone viable, agendas. To appeal to a wider public, political actors have been tempted by populist solutions that often lack any practical policy deliverables. In contrast, more traditional political parties have oscillated between legalistic political platforms and well-intentioned technocratic proposals—often appropriate solutions for Haiti’s challenges but devoid of any contextual meaning for the average citizen.

This has generated a dizzying universe of political parties—including an identifiable community somewhere in the 30+ range. The uncertainty is that many are fleeting entities, visible only during an occasional press pronouncement or because of their association with a political figure. For example, for the 2016 round of presidential elections, while there were 27 candidates, most had no measurable campaign profile— not surprisingly, only the top four vote-getters rose above the 1 percent of the vote threshold. Likewise, in the disputed first round of the 2010 elections, there were 30+ presidential candidates, but only 20 captured enough votes to make it into the final vote count—of which about 75 percent of the total went to the top three candidates (Mirlande Manigat, Jude Célestin, Michel Martelly).

It is hard to separate out distinctive and sustainable political strategies. Most parties have no national presence. Over time this fluid environment also triggers overlapping coalitions, governed more by individual political leaders than the actual merging of party capacities and resources. In today’s environment, this unstable ecosystem splits up on a left-center-right spectrum; a selective list includes the following:

  • The left, anchored by Fanmi Lavalas (in its various iterations, Jean Bertrand Aristide’s original constituency), Petit Dessalines (led by Moïse Jean-Charles, a one-man show in trouble with U.S. law), SPD (more of a coalition of interests but significant as a core opponent of the late president Moïse), and Fusion (legacy social democratic party with limited influence today)

  • Center-left factions, including INIFOS (led by veteran politician, Paul Denis, and with overlap in the past with the Convergence Democratique and Inite, the late René Preval’s legacy party), KID (led by another veteran politician, Evans Paul, which also has overlapped with the Convergence Democratique), and OPL (Organisation du peuple en lutte, a legacy party that split off from the original Lavalas/Aristide coalition with veteran political figure Gérard Pierre-Charles and held considerable presence in the 1990s and early 2000s, but is arguably now quite fragmented)

  • The center/center-right, represented by En Avant (a “movement” with national ambition toward a women/youth constituency party, led by Jerry Tardieu) and RDNP (legacy party linked to its founder, Leslie Manigat, whose wife, Mirlande Manigat, made it into the second round of the controversial 2011 presidential elections—and lost to Michel Martelly)

  • The right end of the political spectrum, anchored by PHTK (Jovenel Moïse’s “Bald Headed” party, also linked to Michel Martelly; Moïse’s death has led to a potential reincarnation led by his widow, Martine, and others associated with the late president’s tenure), AAA (led by Youri Latortue), and others

Some of this is blurred even more with some political entities identifying themselves as “political movements,” hinting at being mostly promoters of interests rather than actual electoral vehicles. In practice, Haitian law does not formally assign a legal status to political movements, but they are often the precursor to becoming a registered political party. Significantly, little of this translates into governance agendas or legislative strategies. Haiti’s bicameral national legislature (Chamber of Deputies and Senate—essentially non-functioning since the 2019 elections were not held) does not have much of a record of notable achievements, and its political dynamic has been a confusing landscape of endlessly shifting undercurrents and alliances.

There are practical reasons for this. For example, Martelly’s controversial second-round victory in 2011 gave his party (Respons Payizan) only three seats in the Chamber of Deputies, while nearly half of all the seats (46 out 99) went to the Inite party (the late René Preval’s legacy party) of Jude Célestin (who had been knocked out of the race in the wake of the first-round controversy); Martelly had no representation in the Senate. None of this is a particularly encouraging picture—little has been written about the inner workings of this environment, which may explain the title of a rare memoir recently published by Jerry Tardieu, a member of the Chamber of Deputies from 2016 to 2020, Dans L’Enfer du Parlement (2020), which translates into “In the Hell of Parliament.”

Implications for Operationalizing Governance

The emergence of a functioning democracy makes political parties the connective tissue linking citizen and group representation, the aggregation of preferred interests, and the tools to incentivize political participation. This construct generates an inherently fragile dependence on a party’s ability to translate diverse views into aggregated priorities, filtered through a particular worldview or ideological belief, and translated or repackaged into concrete policy proposals. At its best, a political party community reflects alternative definitions of interest and preferred outcomes.

The reality is often different, and over the past two decades, party dynamics have often been diverted toward the primacy of electoral and political gains at all costs, fueling a general decline in the qualitative outcome of governance and deepening polarization. Contemporary parties are now often driven by top-down personality-driven political machines. The Achilles’ heel in this dynamic becomes political leaders themselves and their self-promotive notions of a public good and populist appeals. This is a worldwide trend—including in the United States. The challenge does not end there.

The central proposition in democracy’s theory of change highlights the interaction, if not the merging, of political participation with citizen or civic engagement, and in turn assuring government accountability. But all three factors are either in decline or prone to winner-take-all strategies, as well as sanctioned corruptive behavior. This has a quantitative impact on the perception of democracy as the preferable governing construct and in turn erodes citizens’ presumption of a causality between economic prosperity and democratic governance—that democracy delivers. This is relevant to Haiti’s ongoing national crisis.

For the United States and other international actors supporting political party and civil society strengthening initiatives, the Haitian case study highlights the practical operational frustrations of governance programs that uneasily straddle Thomas Carothers’s distinction of political versus developmental democracy assistance programming. The standard governance nomenclature as operationalized in development assistance often ends up emphasizing technocratic features and shortchanges the critical notion that governance is fundamentally a political concept. The expectation should be that leaders (in effect, a politicized constituency) and institutions will work together to provide governance, particularly democratic governance.

The Haitian experience suggests that often this is not the outcome at all. The broader lesson to be drawn here is that governance capacity building (a nebulous concept as it turns out) and technical or knowledge transfers are not sufficient to expect changes in political behavior, let alone the realignment of core interests. The fractured character of Haiti’s politics in recent years disincentives the political party community’s potential to aggregate competing citizen interests and community demands into a broader coalition, and ultimately, governance. Paradoxically, international community (notably U.S.) engagement in Haiti is also a factor, most recently in the context of a renewed push for national elections before the end of 2022—all while ostensibly trying to avoid past practices of picking Haiti’s winners and losers. That’s admirable, but this perception of neutrality does not match the political reality in Haiti, where Washington and other international actors have already tipped the scales in favor of the interim government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry. This sense of expediency by international actors further distorts the dynamics of Haiti’s key political actors and institutions.

Ultimately, it is important to also place Haiti’s uncertain 2022–23 political calendar in the context of a neighboring Central and South America, where autocratic, and sometimes anti-democratic, leaders have emerged. There are the legacy cases of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. This is not a development unique to the Americas, but the more intriguing experiences in this hemisphere for Haiti’s own path forward are those democratically elected leaders whose tenures in due course have begun to diverge from democratic governance. This includes Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele. Their tenures are openly threatening core freedoms, notably judicial independence, a free press, a competitive political party environment, and the independent work of civil society. To suggest that these elements exist in Haiti in varyingly fragile conditions would be an understatement. This has consequences. 

Georges Fauriol is on the adjunct faculty of Georgetown University’s Democracy & Governance program, a fellow with the Caribbean Policy Consortium, and a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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