No end in sight to election mess as interim leader settles in

PORT-AU-PRINCE— Senate leader Jocelerme Privert took office as Haiti's caretaker president with one real task: Quickly untangle a political stalemate blocking presidential and legislative runoff elections.

Three months on, yet another voting date has fallen by the wayside as political infighting continues to snarl election efforts. Privert, meanwhile, seems increasingly comfortable as Haiti's leader, traveling through the capital in horn-blaring motorcades and recently attending a U.N. climate change meeting in New York.

Welcome to Haiti's dysfunctional democracy, where few people think there will be voting anytime soon.
Under the accord that helped put him in office, Privert was supposed to make way for a voter-approved president May 14 following a late April election.

But his provisional administration got off to a sluggish start, and only recently appointed a commission to verify contested elections held last year that many Haitians believe were rigged to benefit Tet Kale, the party of previous President Michel Martelly.

“We can't go to the polls without first restoring confidence in the process,” said Privert, who now suggests holding presidential and legislative runoffs in October along with already scheduled balloting for a third of Senate seats.

Lawmakers aligned with Tet Kale are demanding Privert's resignation, accusing him of putting up obstacles so he can hold onto power. The faction is stoking street protests as it opposes the verification panel, questioning its legality.

The impasse is a reminder of the fragility of democracy in one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the world.

Laurent Dubois, a Haiti historian at Duke University, said election postponements and declarations of fraud have been a consistent part of the nation's electoral process since the overthrow of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. They were also a part of the political process before that, including during the U.S. occupation of 1915-1934.
“Much of what is going on today is not that different from earlier election cycles,” said Dubois, author of “Haiti: The Aftershocks of History.”

In 2010, outgoing President Rene Preval was suspected of rigging the vote to elect his preferred successor, Jude Celestin, sparking violent clashes between Martelly's supporters and U.N. peacekeepers. Celestin was eventually eliminated from the two-candidate runoff under pressure from Washington, the Organization of American States and opposition protests. Martelly took office in May 2011.

This time, No. 2 presidential finisher Celestin announced a boycott as he rejected first-round results that put the Martelly-backed Jovenel Moise in the front-runner spot. As local election observers decried the October election as a sham, Celestin's opposition alliance called for a transitional government to organize a ``fair'' vote. International monitors with the EU and OAS have said last year's election results appeared legitimate to them.

The U.S. and other countries have been pressing Haiti to meet the deadlines of the last-minute deal for an interim administration negotiated by legislative leaders and Martelly less than 48 hours before he was to leave office. The February accord paved the way for Privert's 120-day government to oversee the runoff.

Few voters expected a quick fix.

“Haitian politicians refuse to compromise and will do anything to get power or keep it,” said Patrice Zephyr, an electrician from downtown Port-au-Prince who voted for the first time in 2010 and was so disappointed with the result he doesn't expect to cast a ballot again.

Worried by Haiti's partisan tensions, the OAS says it's critical that elections resume without repeating the issues or problems of the recent past. “The elections should be held as soon as possible but shouldn*t be rushed,” Luis Almagro, secretary general of the organization, told The Associated Press.

Frustration in Washington has grown. Last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Miami television station that Haiti's “so-called leaders need to understand there's a clear limit to the patience, the willingness of the international community to condone this process of delay.”

In Haiti, though, there is deep resentment of anything that could be construed as outside meddling in the impoverished country, where foreign powers and NGOs have long held considerable sway.

“No Haitian should accept the meddling of foreigners trying to dictate what we do in our election,” the National Human Rights Defense Network and three other local groups said in a statement.

Kenneth Merten, the U.S. State Department's special coordinator for Haiti, said the U.S. recognizes the vote is a Haitian process even though foreign powers are funding much of the cost. The U.S. has already spent $33 million on Haiti's suspended balloting.

Rejecting accusations of meddling, Merten said the international community simply wants an elected government in place that reflects the voters' will rather than a president chosen by politicians.

Merten described the newly launched verification process of last year's balloting as a sort of “black box” that risks being manipulated by political actors whose factions didn't make the cut last year.

“It is a very opaque and you could argue non-democratic way of moving forward,'' he told the AP shortly before traveling to Haiti last week to discuss the stalled elections.

Now there are new deadlines that Haiti may struggle to meet. The five-member verification commission installed last week has 30 days to finish gauging the legitimacy of the official results. Meanwhile, a revamped Provisional Electoral Council says it aims to publish a new election calendar later this month.

Many Haitians have little faith in their country's democracy due to years of unmet promises and political infighting. But some, deeply proud of Haiti and serious about their duties as citizens, still want to vote.

“If I get the chance, I will vote even though no government has ever brought improvements to this area,” said Jean-Mary Daniel, a subsistence farmer struggling to grow beans and corn in isolated southeastern Haiti.