More Whoa! in Haiti: Did the Ruling Party Manipulate Election Results?

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If you’re wondering why only about a tenth of the more than $10 billion that international donors pledged to Haiti’s reconstruction has actually been disbursed so far, we likely got another reminder on Monday, April 25. Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) announced that it was delaying certification of results from 19 legislative elections held on March 20 – but only after a chorus of complaints from the U.S., the U.N. and other international election observers about the CEP’s inexplicable reversal of those results, changes that in almost every case aided the ruling party of President René Préval.

It’s just the latest whiff of political chicanery in Haiti, and it will do little to open the purse strings of an international community that doesn’t trust the country’s venal political class any farther than it can throw it. Granted, many international donors are awaiting next month’s inauguration of President-elect Michel Martelly – and for the departure of Préval, whose all but AWOL performance in the wake of last year’s massive earthquake, which killed 250,000 people, only deepened donor wariness. Now, concerns about widespread fraud in the legislative contests – coming after accusations of fraud in the first round of the presidential election last November – can only stoke fears that Préval and his party, INITE (Unity) will continue to cast an obstructive shadow over an already lagging reconstruction effort.

At the center of the new controversy is the CEP, whose nine members were appointed by Préval. One high-level international official in Haiti, who asked not to be identified, admitted to me last year that the CEP “has little credibility with Haitians or foreigners.” That official said this just weeks before November’s presidential first round. He was borne out after the voting when the CEP announced that Préval’s hand-picked candidate, Jude Célestin, had finished second – and would therefore take on the first-place finisher, 70-year-old former First Lady Mirlande Manigat, in the runoff, which was held March 20 – even though it was clear to most Haitians and international observers from early vote-counting that Martelly, a popular former Carnival singer known as “Sweet Micky,” had finished second, not Célestin.

After pressure from the U.S. and the Organization of American States, as well as violent protests by Martelly supporters, Préval finally relented. Martelly replaced Célestin on the March 20 ballot and, as the outsider favorite of Haiti’s huge and disaffected youth vote, defeated Manigat by a 2-to-1 margin. But Haiti’s opposition parties say Préval and INITE were determined to avenge the Célestin affront by dominating the legislative elections, even if it meant leaning on the malleable CEP to alchemize new results in races that INITE candidates didn’t win after the first vote counts. INITE and the CEP deny the charge; but last week international officials shouted Whoa! when the council’s final results showed unlikely reversals in 17 elections for the Haitian Congress’ Chamber of Deputies and in one for the Senate. (The CEP said Monday it is delaying certification in one other race, but didn’t specify which.)

In all but two of the 18 cases that international observers cited, the reversals suddenly made INITE candidates the victors – and in some cases the CEP was so ham-handed about it that it ended up giving INITE candidates more votes than the total votes cast in the elections. The reversals hand INITE 46 of 99 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and an absolute majority in the 30-member Senate, a tally that would allow INITE significantly more leverage to thwart Martelly in the choice of Prime Minister and other issues critical to Haiti’s reconstruction, from rubble removal contracts to desperately needed agricultural development.

The CEP did not say when it would finish its review before certifying the 19 disputed elections. But either way, the council has set Haiti up for the potential of new civil unrest – by opposition supporters if the questionable reversals aren’t themselves reversed, and by INITE supporters if they are. Which is of course all the western hemisphere’s poorest country needs after a crippling earthquake, a cholera outbreak, political strife and the recent returns from exile of former right-wing dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and former left-wing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In its Monday statement, the CEP promised to act “for the sake of transparency and in the best interests of the nation.” But, understandably, it’s not a pledge many Haitians – or international donors – trust. And it’s a reminder that if the final legislative results leave Martelly with a modicum of governing power, one of his first jobs should be scrapping the CEP and replacing it with something that has a modicum of credibility.