A woman puts her hand near a crack on a wall as she waits for food distribution in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 27, 2010.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Six years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, much of its infrastructure and institutions still lie in ruins, and its democracy is now in crisis as well. After coming to power in 2011, Haitian President Michel Martelly failed to schedule elections for four years. He filled municipal posts with political appointees and has ruled by decree since parliament dissolved in January 2015, when the terms of two-thirds of the senate and the entire lower house expired. When elections finally happened in August and October, they were riddled with irregularities. Yet Martelly seated the new Parliament on January 11, and despite domestic calls to postpone the January 24 presidential runoff, he plans to move forward. But the election will be a charade: Jude Célestin, the second-place finisher in October’s first-round presidential elections, has indicated that he will not participate in the runoff, which he said “isn’t an election but a selection,” leaving the race uncontested.

Haiti has even been under intense international pressure to push the election forward. The United States and the Core Group (composed of ambassadors from Brazil, Canada, the EU, France, Spain, the United States, and the special representative of the Organization of American States) pressured the country to seat its parliament and ensure that Martelly, who is constitutionally prohibited from running for reelection, is replaced when his term expires on February 7. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement on January 6 stressing “the importance of inaugurating the new legislature within the constitutional time frame to ensure the renewal of democratic institutions and consolidate political stability in Haiti.” And yet it is the international community and its foreign-imposed solutions that will foster political instability by undermining Haiti’s fragile democracy.

Washington, which has a long history of meddling in Haiti, has invested in the electoral process by providing $30 million in assistance for the elections, making it the largest donor, so it has a clear stake in claiming that the vote is free and fair. Yet the election has been anything but clean.

During the August parliamentary election, violence and intimidation forced 13 percent of polling centers to close and drove many away from the polls—in the end, only 18 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) attributed most of the violence to the ruling party, criticizing its candidates and sympathizers for “ransacking” voting centers and stealing voting materials, but failed to hold the party accountable for its actions. Observers reported that police assigned to protect polling stations did little to quell disturbances, raising questions about whether the government had ordered officers to stand down. After the ensuing outcry, the CEP stepped in with some modest efforts to improve the next round. But it allowed many of the tainted results for the deputy and senate races to still stand. Many of the worst perpetrators of election-day abuses, including those from the ruling party, secured a seat in the legislature or a spot in the second round of legislative elections on October 25.

It is the international community and its foreign-imposed solutions that will foster political instability by undermining Haiti’s fragile democracy.

Haitians’ continued lack of confidence in the electoral process and fear of violence affected the October 25 vote, too, which had a 23 percent voter turnout. This first round of presidential voting and the legislative runoff was relatively peaceful, which some observers attributed to a stronger and more proactive police presence. (Other Haitian election watchers argued that the heavy policing may have also intimidated voters.) But the authorities did little to stem the rampant and systematic voting fraud and irregularities.

Protests ensued, and Martelly appointed a five-person committee in late December to review the fraud charges. He postponed the presidential runoff, which was initially scheduled for December 27. The commission issued its damning report on January 3. After reviewing 1,771 tally sheets, selected at random, the commission found that 92 percent contained at least one serious irregularity and more than half exhibited at least three serious irregularities, such as signs of modification and missing laminate, which is placed over ballots to safeguard against tampering. Many ballots lacked verification, such as signatures, fingerprints, and national identification numbers. The commission also confirmed the exploitation of the mandataire system, through which more than 900,000 poll watchers were licensed. The parties with financial resources purchased many of these credentials, and rather than check for fraud they stuffed ballot boxes and voted multiple times at different stations.

The report included a warning that if Haiti’s leaders come to power through tarnished elections it would “further aggravate the political crisis and instability of the country.” But critics believe that the report’s ambiguities and modest recommendations—better training for poll workers and replacing CEP members whose credibility has eroded—do not go far enough. And many of its suggestions have not even been implemented. Civil society groups have called for a transitional government while an independent commission investigates the disputed elections and recommends and implements meaningful electoral reforms. Pierre Louis Opont, the head of the CEP, wavered about whether the election should go forward, but ultimately decided it should, after a visit from U.S. State Department envoys Thomas Shannon and Kenneth Merten. Before the commission even issued its report, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Peter Mulrean, stated that there was no evidence of rampant fraud

This is not the first time that foreigners have intervened in Haiti’s elections. After the 2010 earthquake, the government bowed to international pressure to hold an election, in spite of conditions that were hardly conducive to a free and fair one. The country was still reeling from the tragedy, with hundreds of thousands languishing in squalid displacement camps. For a month, cholera, brought by UN troops, had spread unchecked. The chaos engulfed politics, too. The electoral commission unfairly banned 14 political parties, including the popular Fanmi Lavalas party, largely on technical grounds. In turn, many voters boycotted the election. Though stability requires a functioning government, one that is regarded as illegitimate cannot move a country forward.

Following the chaotic first round of voting, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped guide an intervention by the Organization of American States (OAS) that arbitrarily altered the outcome of the initial round. Martelly, whom Washington supports and who had initially failed to qualify for the runoff, was bumped into second place. Jude Célestin, the candidate backed by outgoing President Rene Preval, was removed from the contest. Ricardo Seitenfus, then the OAS’ special representative to Haiti, denounced the OAS’ “blatant electoral intervention.” Martelly won the March 2011 runoff election with a paltry 17 percent of the vote. He then used his unchecked power to ensure his hold on the government. Unsurprisingly, his hand-picked successor, Jovenel Moise, secured the most votes in October.

Residents crowd the windows and doors of the city hall to pick up their identification cards needed to vote on Sunday's election in the Petionville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, November 27, 2010.
Allison Shelley / Reuters

Reflecting concerns about the fragility of Haiti’s democracy, the U.S. Congress added aid conditions in its December budget law, requiring the secretary of state to certify that the “Government of Haiti is taking effective steps to hold free and fair Parliamentary elections and seat a new Haitian Parliament.” But without an independent review and real reforms, Congress should not allow the State Department to certify such disastrous elections as “free and fair.”

It’s not only in the electoral arena that the international community has failed Haiti. The country has yet to recover from the devastating earthquake. The cholera epidemic continues to kill hundreds each year, a $2.2 billion eradication plan remains unfunded, and the UN has so far dodged responsibility for its role in bringing the disease to the ravaged country. More than 60 percent of Haiti’s citizens live in poverty, tens of thousands of people still reside in makeshift camps, and many more lack adequate housing. The international community squandered the outpouring of goodwill and humanitarian assistance after the earthquake—instead of building Haiti’s capacity to govern democratically and provide for its people, the vast majority of aid bypassed the Haitian government, and much of it never reached Haiti at all.

International meddling, most notably by Washington, has played a prominent role in Haiti’s turbulent past and precarious present. But Haiti should not be required to sacrifice its democracy or sovereignty for the short-term stability preferred by foreign diplomats.  A government ushered in by these tainted elections, under pressure from abroad, will be widely perceived as lacking legitimacy. That in turn will foment long-term instability and unrest. This time, the international community should step back and allow Haitians to determine their own fate.

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  • LAUREN CARASIK is a Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University School of Law.
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