Let voters, not bureaucrats, decide elections

Last month Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (PEC) took the undemocratic and dangerous step of eliminating 13 political parties, including Haiti’s most popular party, Fanmi Lavalas, from Parliamentary elections scheduled for February and March 2010. The decision threatens not only Haiti’s democracy and stability, but billions in foreign investments. Fortunately, prompt action by the United States, the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States (OAS) can avoid this looming disaster.

The PEC claims that the excluded parties failed to submit the proper registration documents. For Fanmi Lavalas (FL), the Council claims that a mandate sent by the party’s exiled leader, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from South Africa, is not authentic. In fact, FL presented an original mandate authenticated by a Haitian notary that complies with Haitian law for mandates. Dr. Aristide sent a fax of the mandate directly to the PEC, and confirmed its authenticity in an interview with a Haitian radio station.
Voters should decide elections, not bureaucrats. Authorities should not exclude a party from an election without a very good reason, determined through a very fair, transparent process. The PEC not only lacks a good reason to exclude FL, it lacks legitimacy to do so. The Council is Provisional because the Permanent Council required by Haiti’s 1987 Constitutions has never been established. Instead of pursuing the Constitution’s procedure for establishing the Permanent Council, Haiti’s President René Préval handpicked Council members from nominations submitted by civil society groups that he selected.
The PEC tried the same thing earlier this year, and got away with it. The Council disqualified Fanmi Lavalas and other parties from elections held in April and June for twelve senate seats. When the disqualifications were first announced, the United States, the UN, and the OAS denounced the exclusion as undemocratic. The U.S. Embassy’s statement warned that the exclusion would “inevitably” raise questions about the election’s credibility.
But the PEC called the international community’s bluff, and kept the excluded parties out. The international community blinked, by not only accepting the flawed elections, but paying for them: international donors supplied $12.5 million, 72% of the election’s cost.
Haitian voters, having seen enough fraudulent elections to know a charade when they see one, boycotted the elections. The PEC’s official participation rate of 11% for the April elections was low enough, but most observers put the real figure at 3-5%.
On Nov. 27, the UN took a very small step to improve the next elections, in which the entire House of Deputies and one-third of the Senate are at stake. The UN urged authorities to “avoid any decision that might create the perception of unequal or unfair treatment” of parties. But members of the international community, including the U.S. and the OAS, have otherwise declined to publicly criticize the PEC’s exclusion.
By dropping their principled objections to the April election’s flaws, the international community gave the PEC a green light to keep excluding the government’s political rivals. But the U.S., UN and OAS have a second chance to insist on fair elections, by immediately withholding the $18 million they have promised the PEC, without which the February 2010 elections will not take place. All three need to act quickly, and resolutely. If they do not, the donors will be complicit in a massive violation of Haitian voters’ human right to vote in free elections, a right guaranteed by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the OAS’ American Convention on Human Rights.
Prompt action by the U.S., UN and OAS would not only protect Haiti’s democracy, it would also protect billions of dollars of their own investments in Haiti. The UN’s Peacekeeping Mission in Haiti costs $600 million per year. The U.S. Agency for International Development contributed $287 million this year to Haiti, and has asked Congress for $293 million for next year. UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton has worked hard this year to convince private investors that Haiti is a good place to do business.
The PEC’s exclusion of legitimate political parties from the 2010 elections threatens all of these investments. Experience in Haiti and elsewhere demonstrates that preventing citizens from challenging the government’s policies through the ballot box will inevitably lead to challenges outside the ballot box. These challenges will create disruptions that will impose burdens on UN Peacekeepers, halt development projects and scare away investors.
President John F. Kennedy famously observed that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” Haiti’s leaders appear intent on testing this maxim, but the U.S., UN and OAS should know better than to join them.
Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. served as an OAS Election Observer and UN Human Rights Officer in Haiti, and currently directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.