Tue | Nov 30, 2021

Haiti's disastrous 'democracy'

Published:Sunday | November 14, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Damaged buildings in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, in January. - file


On January 12, Haiti was struck by one of the world's greatest disasters, a massive earthquake. Some 300,000 were killed. Without much recovery achieved, a cholera outbreak has already claimed more than 800 lives and has hospitalised 11,000. At around the same time, Hurricane Tomas struck Haiti. One and a half million persons, displaced by the earthquake, were exposed to this and other weather systems. More lives were lost.

This is a time for democracy to come to the rescue of the Haitian people. But so far democracy has failed them. Western countries believe that what Haiti needs is democracy and more democracy. Haitians see a danger in the way democracy is being organised for them. Democracy is about rights and increasingly about hope. It is people's hope that their rights will be served. A sign that democracy is failing is when rights are few and mostly abused, and hope is lost and replaced by confusion and cynicism. There is good reason for Haitians to feel the latter.


Democracy puts elections first, not people. The political class puts power first, not people. Haiti is to hold presidential and legislative elections on November 28. Many in Haiti believe that the focus should be on humanitarian recovery and economic reconstruction. Besides, they say that Haitians, though they love the idea of democracy, a Haitian democracy, will not and cannot vote, or do not feel that their votes will be fairly counted. Neither do they know the candidates, or can know them, because their day-to-day lives are such a struggle.

Democracy works well in good times when people have time to know candidates, study issues, debate with each other, register and check their voter registration, have a home address, have a voter ID, and can know where they will vote and then, get there safely. Haitians can only hope that their democratic elections don't turn out to be just another disaster.

There are really two ways that western countries think about democracy. The usual way is to see democracy, freedom and markets as indispensable to each other. To this is added governance that is effective, fair and just. However, there is usually ignorance of context and conditions. Democracy is also promoted through international development. It is a recipe to prevent or to rebuild failed states like Haiti has been. It prescribes state building, peace building and democracy building as parts of nation building. But there is no consensus on the proper sequencing of all of these. Different countries emphasise different things and everybody, governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), seem to just do their own thing. The process lacks coordination and permanence. It often bypasses the local people and the national government like the government of Haiti.

Most Haitians don't look at democracy these ways. They say democracy must be Haitian, that is, built according to local conditions and context. It must include, not bypass Haitians. It must involve their government and should not be dictated by foreign governments and NGOs. It must put people first.

In fact, in 2007, Haiti's president, Rene Preval, said that the Haitian (democratic) constitution was the biggest obstacle to Haiti's development. He wanted to change it. His attempts were frustrated. The constitution limits a president to one term at a time (or two non-consecutive terms). What can a president achieve in one term of five years in a country like Haiti? Preval cannot run again. The last time he ran, his closest rival received a meagre 12 per cent of the votes. There is no one among the present candidates that can compare, or is well known.

In four years, Haiti has had three prime ministers. None has been prime minister long enough to gather real experience. The present prime minister, Max Bellerive, only got his job three months before the earthquake. He lacked experience at a critical time. A fickle legislature of six parties uses its powers to fire prime ministers too quickly, because the constitution gives it the power.

inconsistency of policy

The constitution requires election of a president every five years; election of one-third of the senate every two years; election of members of the Chamber of Deputies every four years; and election of local and municipal government also every four years. The country is constantly electing and changing leaders. This sounds democratic but you cannot have stable government with such costly elections in a poor country, the accompanying instability, and the inconsistency of policy and uncertainty of direction.

But there is more. If no candidate, from president down to local councillor, gets a majority of votes cast then, another election is held three months after, to fill that seat. So, there could be second-round elections in January 2011. Haiti sometimes has three elections every three years.

The logistics are awesome. There are 850 candidates running for the 99 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House). There are 95 candidates running for the 11 vacant senate seats. There are 19 candidates competing for the one presidential position. Sometimes a crisis, lack of financing, or failure of preparation causes an election to be postponed. When the terms of candidates expire, they have to demit office without elections to replace or return them. Sometimes therefore, the legislature is not up to its full complement. Preval himself has said that the frequent elections are either impractical or too expensive.


The Haitian electorate is 4.5 million. Forty-five per cent of electoral cards and national identification cards were lost in the earthquake. Some 66 per cent of polling stations were destroyed. About 1.5 million are homeless living in tent cities. Three-quarters of the population are in poverty. People in camps say the focus should be on food, housing, health, sanitation, school, and the rights of women and girls who are being raped. Children are being kidnapped and sold in the Dominican Republic. Gang violence has increased and candidates and potential voters are vulnerable.

We don't even know if the authorities will meet deadlines to register voters, issue IDs, post voters' lists, train poll workers, and identify polling stations. Some 220,000 voters died in the earthquake and the voters' list is still to be cleaned up. The election authorities do say elections are tentative. On top of all this, the election council lacks credibility because of its powers to reject candidates and the secretive way it has done this. Only eight per cent of Haitians believe the elections will be free and fair.

The most damaging blow to elections is the banning of Fanmi Lavalas, the party of ousted president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. It remains, by all accounts, the most popular party. Yet, voters won't have a chance to vote for its candidates.

Will democracy give Haitians rights or, at least, hope?

Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona. Email: robert.buddan@uwimona.edu.jm