Monday, June 14, 2010

Rene Preval's troubled Haitian presidency

Preval's troubled Haitian presidency
By Isabelle Van Hook, COHA Research Associate:


Upcoming 2010 Elections: Keystone of Haitian Stability

Amidst the chaos and devastation caused by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in January of this year, political catastrophe threatens to exacerbate an already acute humanitarian crisis. Following the earthquake, Haiti’s electoral council suspended the scheduled February legislative elections. The legislative term expired on May 8th, and there are currently no concrete plans for holding new elections.

Presidential elections are scheduled for November 2010; however, the continued disorder and turmoil within the country are also jeopardizing the chances of successfully staging these elections on schedule. Furthermore, the incumbent President, Rene Préval, recently added fuel to the political fire by announcing in early May his intention to remain in office an additional three months beyond the constitutional limit of his term. He has since renounced this decision in response to the surge of resulting negative reactions.

Nevertheless, the prospects for valid elections this year are as shaky as the makeshift homes in which most Haitians continue to live. Throughout May, Haitians expressed their increasing frustration with Préval’s inadequate response and a vacuum of leadership that was seen in the aftermath of the earthquake as well as his disregard for constitutional issues. Although the demonstrators have been relatively peaceful thus far, the protests portend a future escalation of hostilities and even a resurgence of gang-related violence. Clearly, Préval has not carried out his duties as a leader. His once lofty reputation has by now all but dissipated, and many are already calling for his resignation.

Haiti has a long history of political instability, chronic corruption, and violent regime change. Understandably, Haitian civil society is virtually non-existent, and popular faith in governmental institutions is weak at best. Although the atrophied government provides little in the way of services, order, and leadership to its citizens, many outsiders are hopeful that with new elections, Haiti could continue its nascent democratic tradition and boost governmental capacity.

November Elections Possible?

Haiti has never had a robust democratic culture. Even in times of relative stability, elections have often been marred by fraud and corruption. In addition, high illiteracy rates and a general lack of civic identity have impeded the electoral process. The devastation from the earthquake only has added to the list of obstacles to organizing new elections.

To begin with, several million Haitians are still homeless following the earthquake. The Haitian Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) must act quickly to re-register all of these internally displaced voters in the districts in which they now live as well as replace millions of lost voter identification cards. Polling stations, voting machines, and registered voter lists were also destroyed. To complicate matters further, the CEP’s headquarters have been reduced to a makeshift office at a local gym.

These issues may seem relatively simple to fix. Couldn’t the international community simply direct funds towards replacing lost items, registering voters, and set a date for an election? Unfortunately, there are many other long-standing internal complications that obstruct elections. To begin with, many Haitians are skeptical of the CEP’s legitimacy, and with good reason, given its tawdry history. Its nine members were hand selected by President Préval even though the Constitution stipulates that each member be selected by a different governmental or non-governmental organization. Before the CEP begins its task of organizing new elections, its members must be legally and transparently selected, otherwise the elections will be seen as compromised from the start. Many believe that Préval will use his control over the CEP to manipulate elections. As opposition leader Evans Paul told journalist Kim Ives, “Nobody has confidence in Préval or his CEP to organize credible elections.”

Haiti also lacks a strong political opposition that could genuinely challenge Préval’s rule and provide coherent democratic competition. Political parties tend to be small, inherently corrupt, and weak, with no solid political platforms. The earthquake has only magnified the scope of this problem. The current international conversation has not confronted the fact that without viable candidates to run in the elections, no amount of voter registration or new voting machines will produce a successful election.

Haitian support for elections

In light of the current humanitarian situation, many Haitians feel dispirited, if not apathetic, and are increasingly hostile towards their government. Critics believe that Préval has not put in enough effort to rehabilitate the country and provide jobs for victims. As Haitian citizen Rodrigue Desire points out in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, “We heard from Obama before we heard from Préval after the quake. The government has never done anything for me, so voting for a new one means nothing.” In order to encourage voter participation, the current regime must demonstrate that it is using the billions of dollars of relief aid to directly benefit the victims of the earthquake. At an international conference held in the Dominican Republic on June 2nd, U.N. envoy Edmond Mulet urged that “tangible change must be felt by the men, women, and children living in desperate conditions in the camps in order to avoid this discontent being transformed into social and political instability.”

Beckoning to a political cataclysm

Throughout May, political agitation has steadily escalated as Haitians become increasingly impatient with Préval’s ineffectual rule and the international community’s infuriating patronization of its response to the earthquake. At the June conference Mulet warned, “The longer that the victims continue living in precarious conditions, the more they will have reason to be discontent. That discontent can be manipulated for political ends.” Although the political demonstrations in the island’s capital of Port-au-Prince have been largely peaceful in nature, incidents of violence, arrests, and serious injuries have occurred. On May 18th, while the country was celebrating Flag Day, UN peacekeeping forces fired automatic weapons in an attempt to subdue unrest in the Cité Soleil slum of Port-au-Prince. UN forces also quelled a student demonstration on May 24th at a Port-au-Prince university through the use of rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas. Protestors were expressing their anger over the government’s failure to act in the aftermath of the earthquake and Préval’s attempt to manipulate his constitutional mandate. Many called for the return of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Several Haitians have been killed in street violence, although the police have described these deaths as unrelated to the protests.

Breeding grounds for resurgent gang-violence

Most worrisome for the overall stability of the country, and especially for Préval himself, is the increasingly violent pressure on his government from former supporters of his National Unity Party, which originally was part of the powerful Lavalas bloc. As early as April, doctors were reporting a sharp increase in cases of gunshot wounds. One anti-Préval gang member told The Observer’s Peter Beaumont, “We are going to fight Préval and the government. We have already got the guns. We have people here from Cité Soleil who want to fight. We’re not going to live in this misery.” Other disillusioned Haitians acknowledged that although they were the ones who had originally elected Préval, they no longer supported him now that he was failing to deliver jobs and assistance.

Chaotic Search for Democracy

Instead of bolstering civic support for the Haitian government through swift and effective action, Préval has thrown the lawful authority of his regime into question by attempting to illegally extend his presidential term by three months. Article 149 of the Haitian Constitution stipulates that in the event of a presidential vacancy, the vice-president of the Supreme Court should take office and conduct elections within ninety days. His chief of staff, Fritz Longchamp, justified this unconstitutional measure as a necessary step to maintain stability and avoid the dangers that power vacuums can pose. Opponents of Préval’s rule speculate that the President is trying to hold on to his office in order to benefit personally from the billions of dollars in international aid, as much of it will be channeled through government hands. Many also fear that Préval’s maneuver was a raw grab for power, reminiscent of the dictatorial rule under the Duvalier family.

On May 18th, Préval rescinded his announcement to continue to remain in power for the three-month extra period in response to the collective outcry against his breach of constitutionality. He assured Haitians that he would step down at the end of his term on February 7th with “calm in his heart,” and promised that elections would be held by the end of the year. While Préval may have been mistaken to try to ameliorate the political situation in the country by pushing for leadership continuity, it may have been equally disastrous to make empty promises to a population that is already dangerously disenchanted with their government. Millions of voters must still be registered, identification cards must be distributed, and voting machines must be manufactured. As of yet, there are no clear candidates to succeed Préval. Inauspiciously, all of this must be worked out in the midst of the hurricane season.

On the other hand, Haiti’s history of authoritarian rule provides little encouragement to give Préval’s administration the benefit of the doubt. Justifiably, many fear that if Préval is allowed to stay an additional three months, he could very well try to stay an additional three years. As part of his continual toadying up to Washington, Préval further corroded his legitimacy even before the January 12th earthquake by banning former President Aristide’s powerful Lavalas party from participating in elections. Préval also banned fourteen other smaller parties from participating in elections. Popular distrust of Préval is evident in the continued demonstrations even after he vowed to step down in accordance with constitutional provisions. The sad fact is that the Préval of recent years has not acted to his former caliber. Préval, once a kinsman of Aristide, has permitted naked ambition for him to play the Judas.

Préval now faces two tough choices: promise elections and risk failure and further discontent, or postpone elections and also face greater discontent. Although Préval’s record is not flawless, the international community deserves some of the blame for the current frustrating political situation in Haiti. A catchphrase of the Haitian reconstruction effort is “build Haiti back better.” However, the supposed international dialogue has stagnated and is content with acknowledging “broad obstacles” and “great challenges,” without taking concrete steps to overcome these problems. As of now, 140 nations have pledged over $5 billion in aid over the next two years, but only Brazil has written a check for $55 million. Haitians know that “positive signs of progress” don’t translate to election preparedness, direct disaster relief, and humanitarian recovery. Lieutenant General Keen of the US Southern Command remarked at a United States Institute of Peace conference in June that the upcoming elections should be viewed as a “glass half-full” situation. However, elections won’t be effectively held through only hoping; the international community cannot stabilize Haiti by clicking its ruby red slippers. The only way to move forward is for Préval and the international community to demonstrate responsibility and make good on their respective promises of aid and fair elections.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, visit www.coha.org

June 14, 2010

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