Last Sunday’s election in Haiti in the midst of a cholera epidemic was messy, confusing and disappointing, and the outcome is still unclear. Sadly, the country failed to overcome perennial distrust and polarization despite the pressing need for consensus on state-building and reconstruction following last January’s devastating earthquake.
It will be days before we know the top two presidential candidates who will face each other in a runoff. Even more important, there now is a crucial question as to the numbers of eligible voters who were disenfranchised.
A litany of things went wrong. Many voters could not find their names on the lists; voter verification telephone lines were saturated; party agents were denied access to polling stations due to limited space or manipulation; ballots did not arrive in time in some places; some voters who had registered for new ID cards never received them and were turned away from polling places; some polling places opened late, others not at all.
A dozen opposition candidates called for an annulment of the election, and urged the population to mobilize in peaceful protest. The Organization of American States/Caribbean Community Secretariat Joint Electoral Observation Mission said such a move was “precipitous” and that the irregularities at that point did not invalidate the election. They urged people to remain calm and wait out the tabulation and dispute resolution process, which will examine complaints and challenges presented to electoral authorities by candidates and parties. Two pre-vote opposition favourites, Mirlande Manigat and “Sweet Mickey” Martelly, are doing just that.
Election results are expected to be published Dec. 7. The dispute resolution process, now under way, must be completely transparent if the next government is to have legitimacy. And clearly, the next government’s agenda must include electoral reforms spanning the registry, civil service elections management, a permanent electoral council and reducing the frequency of elections.
It will also have to immediately focus on quickly moving displaced people from tents to stable housing and from joblessness to employment. Haitians need to see rubble removed faster, with more equipment imported for that purpose if necessary. Delays on making resettlement policy decisions have to end, and donors need to quicken the pace in funding reconstruction.
Crisis Group’s report Haiti: The Stakes of the Post-Quake Elections warned that holding this vote was a daunting challenge even before the earthquake destroyed the capital and displaced 1.5 million people, and before cholera struck. It underscored the confusion that was likely to affect voters in a country where three-quarters of the people live in poverty and where every institution was weak even before the quake.
Some 400,000 new national ID cards had to be distributed to voters who had recently turned 18, moved or lost their cards in the earthquake, even if their names were already on the voting lists. The training of 35,000 poll workers to handle eligible voters was completed the day before the election. Voters had to choose a president from among 19 candidates, and 110 parliamentarians from close to 1,000 candidates. Many were voting at completely new polling places since old ones were destroyed in the earthquake, or because they were displaced.
To compound this difficult situation, the response to the cholera epidemic likely added to the pressures on an already weakened public administration and overstretched international agencies. More than 77,000 people have been infected, and 1,750 have died. Those numbers are expected to more than double over coming months. Unfortunately, there is no panacea to quickly end the epidemic, but the rapid expansion of treatment centres, distribution of oral rehydration therapy, water purification and public health education can save lives.
No matter who goes to the second round, Haiti’s political leaders, the United Nations, the OAS and donors need to immediately forge a national consensus to move past this election, accelerate earthquake recovery and contain the cholera epidemic.
Mark Schneider is senior vice-president and special adviser on Latin America at the International Crisis Group.