Haiti’s caretaker president, Jocelerme Privert, took power on Valentine’s Day thanks to a deal among politicians who granted him a 120-day term and a limited mandate: to prepare the way for balloting that would produce a new, popularly elected leader. Now, 120 days have come and gone, there is no new president, and presidential elections seem months away at best.
Democracy has never had a firm foothold in Haiti; little wonder so many Haitians tend to shrug at the latest lapsed electoral deadline. But neither Haitians nor the international community should be complacent. Without free and fair elections, the hemisphere’s poorest country, still rebuilding from a devastating earthquake in 2010, has little chance of restoring political stability and reviving its listless economy.
Privert, who led the Haitian Senate before he was elevated to lead a transitional government, had to navigate Haiti’s rocky political terrain to appoint a special electoral council charged with reviewing last year’s first round of presidential elections, which were marred by allegations of fraud.
The rationale for reviewing the results is that confidence in the electoral process must be restored before proceeding with a new vote – whether a rerun of the first round or a runoff between the putative two top finishers. It remains to be seen whether the council has the credibility to make that call and make it stick with disillusioned Haitians.
The council is due to render its judgment by the end of May. The risk is that its verdict will trigger a new round of recriminations and instability. If the council gives its blessing to the first-round results, that will infuriate the second-place finisher, Jude Celestin, and his backers, who allege that fraud was rampant. If instead it recommends that the results be scrapped and the election rerun from scratch, there is likely to be an uproar from the camp of the first-place finisher, Jovenel Moise, the heretofore obscure hand-picked successor of Michel Martelly, the dictatorial president who stepped down in February.
U.S. officials, impatient for a runoff, have urged that Haiti get on with it; Secretary of State John F. Kerry last month grumbled about “this process of delay.” Like much of what comes from Washington, however, that stance is viewed with misgivings in Haiti, which was occupied by U.S. Marines a century ago. Supporters of Celestin, who was excluded from the runoff election five years ago at Washington’s behest, suspect the fix is in again.
Yet it is in Haiti’s interest, far more than Washington’s, to hold new elections sooner rather than later. In a nation beset by crony capitalism and threatened by inflation, little progress is likely in the absence of a legitimate, fully formed government. The longer that is delayed, the greater the danger that political instability, rarely much below the surface, will erupt into full-fledged violence. Haitians deserve clean elections and Haitians themselves will benefit from them. So why delay?