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Originally published Friday, January 28, 2011 at 3:01 PM

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Guest columnist

Haiti's election undermines democracy

The aftershocks of Haiti's Nov. 28 election threaten to further rattle this small nation struggling to recover from the 2010 earthquake and a cholera epidemic. Guest columnist Peter Costantini argues that democracy cannot be implanted from afar but must develop in efforts led by Haitians.

Special to The Times

WELL before the first ballot was cast, Haiti's Nov. 28 elections were becoming the nation's third catastrophe of 2010, after the earthquake and cholera epidemic.

The decision by the Haitian government, under pressure from the United States and United Nations, to go ahead with voting in the absence of conditions for free and fair elections has shaken an already fragile Haitian democracy. Now electoral aftershocks threaten to undermine the battered country's reconstruction.

The elections were not fair because the electoral system was far from ready to ensure that all Haitians could participate as voters and candidates. This was due in part to slow progress in rebuilding after last year's earthquake, which caused three times as many deaths in proportion to population as the United Kingdom's losses during World War II.

More than half of the estimated 400,000 voters who needed new or replacement voting cards never got them. Many of those who did were not listed at their polling places, while many who died in the earthquake were. The chaos dashed the hopes of hundreds of thousands of citizens, including many disaster victims, of having a voice in their nation's recovery.

The elections were not free because the Conseil Electoral Provisoire (Provisional Electoral Council) excluded Haiti's largest party, Fanmi Lavalas, from participation on technicalities. FL's exiled leader, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was deposed in a 2004 coup supported by the United States.

The Haitian democracy movement, which overthrew the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 and supported Aristide with huge majorities in the '90s, has fragmented. But the ex-president still enjoys strong support in the countryside and shantytowns, and FL is still widely seen as the broadest-based political force.

U.S. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar criticized Haitian President René Préval for failing to reform the Provisional Electoral Council. "The legitimacy of the upcoming elections could be compromised," he said, by the council's failure to engage the factions of FL in the political process.

The council's rigidity, lack of transparency and perceived obeisance to the Préval administration continue to magnify other shortcomings of the process.

The main sources of dysfunction in this election, then, involved not what ended up in the ballot boxes, but rather what never made it into them.

As a result of these factors and widespread political disenchantment, turnout on election day was only 22.8 percent of registered voters, compared with 59.3 percent in 2006.

Independent observers documented serious fraud, including ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation. According to a U.S. nongovernmental delegation, tally sheets not received, with serious irregularities or with clerical errors represented over 29 percent of total votes cast.

According to Max Chauvet, president of the National Association of Haitian Media, neither a population struggling for daily survival, the political parties nor the electoral machinery was ready for the balloting.

"But this was not a surprise: We saw all the signs of weakness before November 28," he asserted, noting "widespread fraud in all phases."

Official desperation to hold elections as scheduled was not surprising. The Préval administration is widely viewed as ineffectual in dealing with relief and recovery efforts, and subservient to international donors. Many Haitians want the administration to leave office by Feb 7 when its mandate ends. Yet some of the same forces are calling for annulment and rescheduling of the elections.

Whether a temporary national-unity or caretaker government could be formed to organize more-inclusive elections remains an open question.

Even when a new government can be seated, it will be perceived as relatively powerless next to the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti. This international body controls foreign-aid flows much greater than the government's budget, yet Haitians are a minority on it.

Beyond the political kabuki in Port-au-Prince though, many Haitians are working patiently to build public institutions on the foundation of a still robust civil society. Local peasant and community groups counting hundreds of thousands of members offer resilient models of Jeffersonian democracy.

Despite widespread corruption, compounded by earthquake losses of a quarter of government employees, functional organizations and capable people still survive within national and local governments.

As a Haitian proverb says: "Piti, piti, zwazo fè nich li." ("Little by little the bird makes her nest.")

Democracy cannot be implanted by foreign powers. Only Haitians can grow their own indigenous strains in the rocky soil left by decades of murderous kleptocracy.

The return of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, though disruptive, provides a teachable moment for those too young to remember the profound damage his family dictatorship inflicted, with U.S. complicity.

Even under the best conditions, democracy can be messy, volatile and frustrating. Yet only if all Haitians, especially the more than three-quarters who live on two dollars a day or less, can emerge as protagonists in their country's rebirth will government of, by and for the people be able to put down deep roots in Haiti.

Peter Costantini is an independent analyst who has covered elections in Haiti, Nicaragua and Mexico, and led an electoral observation delegation to Nicaragua. He spent May 2010 in Haiti as a journalist and volunteer.

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