Haiti’s Problematic Electoral Dynamics
This commentary was originally published in Global Americans on December 21, 2021.
If there is a consensus among most of Haiti’s political factions and, belatedly, among much of the international community, it is that rushing toward elections in 2022 is unrealistic and simply dangerous for both voters and candidates. Beyond the current headlines about insecurity and political paralysis lies a political time bomb associated with Haiti’s dysfunctional electoral dynamics. February 7, 2022, marks the date when President Jovenel Moïse would have ended his term in office, had the president not been assassinated in July of this year. It also marks the date when the interim government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was nominated by the late president, will lose all of its already diminished credibility. The tenures of the remaining 10 elected members of the Senate will likewise come to an end. What then?
The implications of a post–February 7 vacuum point to an urgent need for a consensus. The stand-off is between Henry and a combination of disparate political factions on one side (formalized by the September 11 Accord), and a diverse civil society and political party coalition on the other (the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, anchored by the Montana Accord). Opinions remain divided over whether Henry’s search for a political compromise over the past 90 days was in earnest, but its outcome—notably, a cabinet shake-up and a partial purge of Moïse loyalists—appears too shallow to be politically sustainable.
Henry’s political standing appears precarious, weakened by growing displeasure among the late president Moïse’s followers and the Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) and by the president’s failure to gather meaningful buy-in from an increasingly organized and determined coalition of civil society actors and diverse political parties. More broadly, what is left of Haiti’s government structure is something of a Potemkin village, still recognized by foreign governments and pretending to provide national governance. The reality is that it has lost control of large segments of Port-au-Prince and surrounding regions to a coalition of energized criminal gangs, who are also weighing heavily on the declining social and economic livelihoods of the Haitian people.
The civil society–backed Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis has undergone internal sniping among its somewhat fractious members, but it occupies a key role in shaping the path forward out of Haiti’s multifaceted crises. Its gap with the Henry-led interim government widened when the commission announced on December 12 the formation of a National Transition Council (CNT), made up of 52 civil society and political leaders. The CNT’s initial task is to select the members of an executive leadership that will preside and attempt to provide legitimacy to what amounts to a two-year transition timeframe.
This two-year timeframe could take the back end of this process well into 2023 and highlights two significant debatable assumptions: (1) no political hiccups occur in the interim, such as projected national and local elections, let alone notions of proposed reform of the 1987 constitution; (2) Haiti receives sustainable diplomatic, security, and financial support to this wobbly and open-ended timeline from key international actors, notably the United States.
The CNT’s existence outflanks Henry’s halting consensus efforts but also raises the question of how a civil society coalition could transform itself into a legitimate governing authority. Beyond the politics of the February 7 deadline, practical thinking needs to emerge of how Haiti’s key actors and its international partners can pave the way toward a politically meaningful set of elections. To hold a credible vote, Haiti’s leaders will have to work against the shaky track record of the past three decades.
Electoral Dynamics in Haiti
Haiti’s current crisis underscores a long-standing challenge: a political foundation that lacks a working national consensus, compounded by often incompatible expectations among key international actors. International engagement in Haiti has over time been paradoxically both generous in budgetary terms but also prone to political expediency over the obvious challenges of holding Haitian national leadership accountable. Since the 1980s, this has translated into a series of electoral fiascos matched up with a quasi-permanent international, political, and sometimes peacekeeping presence, in addition to a parallel multinational development infrastructure whose sheer scope has also shaped Haitian governance. Despite the largesse of these efforts, none has consolidated democratic governance, or more narrowly, electoral dynamics, nor improved the socioeconomic well-being of most Haitians.
What emerged in the confused aftermath of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s departure for exile on February 6, 1986 (before his return to Haiti in 2011 and death in 2014), did not match the unreal international policy expectations regarding notions of democratic consolidation. The first casualty was the bloody and ultimately halted election of November 1987, leading to a truncated one in January 1988. This brought to power an exiled academic-turned-politician, Leslie Manigat, who received little international support and was overthrown by the military in June. Under international pressure, the ensuing instability gave way to an interim consensus government that in turn led to elections in December 1990.
By an overwhelming majority, Haitians chose Jean-Bertrand Aristide—a charismatic ordained priest and proponent of liberation theology—as president in what was regarded by most observers as the nation’s first modern election. But within nine months, Aristide was ousted in a coup. The crisis that ensued endured several phases of an interim military regime and concluded with an international military intervention, which returned Aristide to power in October 1994. Aristide was succeeded in 1995 by his protégé, René Préval, whose major achievement was to actually complete his five-year mandate. But Préval’s term (1996–2001) was highlighted by increasing political paralysis.
Aristide returned to office once again in early 2001 and was quickly undermined by disputes over the credibility of the previous year’s cycle of local and national elections. International mediation by the Organization of American States (OAS) failed, and by 2003, a disjointed coalition of Aristide’s former supporters along with an assortment of gangs, former military, and renegade police turned on him. Large segments of Haiti’s urban civil society also began mobilizing, and in an increasingly violent standoff, Aristide left the country—in effect, was forced out—in late February 2004 for exile in South Africa (returning to Haiti in 2011).
Under international tutelage, a two-year interim ultimately led to René Préval’s second presidency (2006–2011), which ended tragically with the devastating January 2010 earthquake. The earthquake affected the 2010 electoral cycle in both material and human terms, severely damaging the national elections machinery and contributing to the decision to delay the country’s vote. Several controversies emerged surrounding the results of the first round of presidential elections in late 2010. The political standoff lasted for several tense weeks and was only resolved with direct engagement from the international community. In what some observers considered a heavy hand, international mediators negotiated a partial vote recount analysis in an attempt to solve the crisis. The analysis switched the results of the presidential candidates in the second and third positions to confirm a spot in the two-person runoff. That switch ensured Michel Martelly’s victory in the March 2011 runoff.
Martelly’s tenure became the basis for a new electoral breakdown. A popular musician demonstrating something of a populist streak and mass appeal, “Sweet Mickey” was perceived by some as a game changer following the turbulent Aristide and Préval presidencies. His presidency (2011–16) saw some post-earthquake reconstruction successes but also growing political impotence. Parliamentary elections and the first round of presidential elections were delayed until late in 2015, and their inconclusive outcome and disputes resulted in no elected successor to Martelly. A “provisional” government stepped into the breach, and with an increasingly thin layer of constitutional or political credence, the country was forced to repeat the delayed 2015 cycle of presidential elections. The ensuing late November 2016 election results, while contested by some, essentially replayed the disputed 2015 outcome in favor of Jovenel Moïse—a protégé of Martelly who possessed little political experience. These events planted the seeds for a new constitutional crisis in 2021.
In a replay of past practices, parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2019 were delayed—and have yet to be held. With only a leftover rump group of elected senators (and no elected deputies) constituting the national legislature, by early 2020, Moïse was governing by decree (since then most local elected officials’ terms of office have also ended). The 2015–16 electoral imbroglio triggered a dispute regarding when Moïse’s term ended: February 2021 or 2022. Moïse remained in office after the February deadline until he was assassinated on July 7, 2021.
Moving Forward: Four Key Issues
Beyond historical trendlines, several specific factors shape Haitian electoral realities. These can be encapsulated into four variables: (1) electoral and party politics and political actors, (2) constitutional and electoral dynamics, (3) electoral management, and (4) voter participation and turnout.
Electoral and Party Politics and Political Actors
Haiti’s political party scene has increasingly exhibited a rise in personalistic electoral vehicles, devoid of recognizable ideologies, with limited or nonexistent formal party membership and national infrastructure. The late president Moïse’s Tèt Kale or “Bald Headed” party (PHTK) has a nebulous ideological basis, vaguely center-right, matching up with his political mentor and presidential predecessor, Michel Martelly. Martelly ran under the Repons Peyizan, or “Peasant Response,” banner in the 2010–11 elections. The party’s title seems to appeal to a rural constituency, but in practice, the group had even less of a formal ideology, let alone a structure. In fact, having almost no party representation in parliament to govern with, Martelly relied on in part and generally affiliated himself politically with elements that became the PHTK.
This highlights one of the core deficiencies of Haitian contemporary governance: the disconnect between presidential politics and a related legislative strategy. A large portion of parties running in presidential elections are, for the most part, fleeting entities. In the 2010–2011 election cycle, of the 19 political parties represented, the top three vote-getters constituted over 75 percent of the votes in the first round, and nine candidates garnered less 1 percent of the vote each.
Those parties that do have a more defined structure and ideology are generally updated versions or agglomerations of exhausted older political formations that ensued from the 1980–90s post-Duvalier transitions. The most successful recent example is the Rassemblement des Démocrates Nationaux Progressistes (RDNP, Rally of Progressive National Democrats), which was the runner-up in the 2011 presidential contest. Others have reinvented themselves into broader coalitions, albeit with limited success; a good example is Fusion, a coalition of social democratic groups anchored to an older generation of political leaders such as Serge Gilles (who died earlier this year). A different case is Fanmi Lavalas and its spin-offs since the movement broke up in the 1990s, which in very broad terms represent the progressive political lineage of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Having returned to Haiti in 2011, Aristide retains a popular, if reduced, following and by extension a political potential, directly or indirectly.
Constitutional and Electoral Dynamics
The 1987 constitution envisions a strong president with a prime minister (chosen by the president) answerable to a majority in parliament. For this to work, a legislative governance strategy on the part of the government is required, a concept that has been essentially absent from Haiti since the 1990s (Aristide initially had strong parliamentary support, but ultimately infighting broke out). With multiple smaller parties elected to seats in the parliament, an endlessly shifting mix of transitory coalitions constitutes the landscape of Haiti’s legislative universe. Adding to the dysfunction, an electoral calendar has often been off schedule for a variety of reasons. This affected the 2010–11 and 2015–16 cycles and is the backdrop to the current cycle of crises.
The lack of synchronization among national and local elections has generated the incongruous reality of a country with many elections whose outcomes appear to change very little. The lower chamber of parliament (Chamber of Deputies) is elected for four-year terms, the upper chamber (Senate) is elected for six-year terms, withone-third elected every two years, and the president’s term is five years. With this as a backdrop, not entirely unreasonably, the Moïse government argued that the 1987 constitution’s imbalance between the executive and legislative branches created endless dysfunction, leading to revolving door prime ministers and presidents governing by decree. However, the artificiality of the process launched in late fall 2020 underscored its lack of credibility. Constitutional reform is now part of a future government’s challenges.
At the heart of the current crisis is the Conseil Electoral Provisoire (CEP)—an electoral council that has remained provisional and has never been made permanent since the 1987 constitution came into force. The process to achieve permanence is politically and bureaucratically laborious—although it has not been for a lack of trying. Yet, despite periods of quality CEP leadership, in addition to over 30 years of international technical and material assistance, CEP permanence will be a core challenge for Haiti’s next electoral events.
The accompanying table provides a snapshot of voter turnout in presidential elections since 1988. The table underscores both a poor electoral environment and a general fatigue among voters who, over time, question the utility of voting when nothing gets better. This has a negative impact on public perceptions of governance and particularly national leadership, and shapes notions of whether democratic governance can deliver. This may in part explain the high turnout in 1990 and 2000, where there were high expectations regarding Aristide’s commitments to bring change—and the alarmingly low rates in 2011 and 2016, when about three out of four Haitians saw no reason to vote.
Taken together, these variables begin to explain the political, institutional, and operational challenges that undermine efforts toward sustainable, coherent, democratic governance in Haiti. They also represent arenas that depend not only on technical assistance, some of it international, but also on domestic institutions, behavioral commitments, and long-term discipline—not easy tasks to achieve. What path Haitian political discourse takes in the early months of 2022 will be a key determinant in framing a pathway toward electoral credibility.
Georges Fauriol is 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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