Canada presses for Haitian elections
Friday, May 21, 2010, The Canadian Press
Canada is pressuring Haiti to make a firm commitment to holding elections by the end of the year as domestic opposition grows to President René Préval's response to the earthquake.
Haiti's constitution stipulates presidential elections be held Nov. 28, ahead of the scheduled end to Préval's five-year term in February 2011.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon says Canada would like to see elections in Haiti by the end of the year.Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon says Canada would like to see elections in Haiti by the end of the year. (CBC)But Préval has so far seemed ambivalent at the prospect of holding elections so soon after the earthquake.
Earlier this month he announced plans to stay in power up to three months past the end of his term if the election is delayed.
That option has not found favour among Haiti's international backers.
"We're looking for a commitment from the government," Cannon said Friday after addressing a conference in Montreal on Haiti's reconstruction.
"The international community wants to see a commitment, a solid, serious commitment to have an election by the end of this year."
Cannon said he made Ottawa's view known to the Haitian president during a recent trip to the country.
Préval has kept a low profile since the devastating quake rocked the country in January, killing more than 200,000 people and crippling its governing infrastructure.
In recent weeks opposition groups have held increasingly vocal demonstrations criticizing his government's response to the crisis.
Several thousand people, many of them supporters of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, staged an angry protest recently outside the ruined national palace.
Witnesses said they heard several gunshots as riot police dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Haiti politically 'fragile' before quake
"The state is bankrupt, the nation is divided... there is no leadership," Charles Henri Baker, a former presidential candidate and leader of the Respect political party, told the Montreal conference.
"Institutions are practically non-existent and are the result of poor government. There is an urgent need to restore the authority of the state."
Secret briefing documents prepared by the Foreign Affairs Department and access-to-information documents obtained by The Canadian Press indicate Ottawa considered the political environment in Haiti to be "fragile" even prior to the natural disaster.
"Before the earthquake, we considered 2010 a turning point for Haiti, with legislative elections scheduled for February and presidential elections for November," the briefing note reads.
Concerns over Préval's legitimacy were compounded when the legislative elections set for last February were cancelled because of the earthquake.
When the terms of the entire lower house and a third of the Senate expired in early May, it left only a rump upper house dominated by Préval's allies.
Cannon acknowledged several challenges had to be addressed before elections could be held. Elections feasible: UN
A UN report has reportedly found that elections are "technically, logistically and financially" feasible.
But coming up with accurate voter rolls would be nearly impossible given the hundreds of thousands who are dead or displaced.
In addition, Haiti's electoral commission has its own credibility problems after it banned Fanmi Lavalas, Aristide's former party as well as the country's largest, from taking part in the cancelled February legislative elections.
It was a decision that contributed to Ottawa's concerns about the country's stability.
Aristide, now in exile, was ousted in a 2004 coup.
For Cannon, and Haiti's other patrons, elections represent a way to calm investors who may be reticent about Haiti's political situation.
"The sooner we have political stability the sooner we're going to be able to get economic stability and growth in that country," Cannon said.
He added that Canada is willing to provide support for the electoral process. In the past it has sent monitoring teams.
New York Times Editorial:
A Good Election Would Help
With all that Haiti lost on Jan. 12 — and all that it has to do to rebuild — it needs a strong and legitimate government. That means it needs national elections.
Haiti was supposed to elect a new Parliament in February and a new president this November. The earthquake made the February vote impossible and the November vote uncertain. The current Parliament’s term ends today, meaning Haiti is entering a period of uncertainty, with enormous obstacles to overcome for a transparent, honest and peaceful vote this fall. Power is concentrated for now in just one person, President René Préval, whom Parliament granted emergency authority to govern without a legislature.
Given Haiti’s long and destructive history of one-man rule, that emergency period should be as short as possible. Mr. Préval has insisted that he will leave when his term ends on Feb. 7, but he sent tremors last week by announcing he might stay on until May 14, the technical end date of his five-year term if the election is delayed and looming chaos demands that someone remain in charge.
It’s up to everyone in Haiti now, Mr. Préval in particular, to make that unnecessary. The United Nations mission in Haiti (Minustah) and the Organization of American States have pledged security and technical support. The task will be extraordinarily difficult: 1.5 million people — more than 15 percent of Haiti’s population — are homeless, living in shelters or with relatives. Their identity documents were destroyed along with the schools used as polling places. The electoral council is working in makeshift headquarters: a gym. Huge logistical obstacles must be overcome, and decisions made about registration, voting procedures and candidate qualifications.
The process must emphasize the greatest possible flexibility and participation by voters and candidates. Displaced people should be allowed to vote where they currently live, not their old destroyed neighborhoods. Opposition parties will need aid to organize and campaign. In a country where transportation and communication are difficult and expensive, Mr. Préval’s Unity Party should not be given undue advantages.
If fair elections can be held in Iraq, amid war, terrorism and ethnic feuds, they can be held in Haiti. The last thing Haiti needs is to lay a political catastrophe atop the natural one. Haiti needs a legitimate government chosen in a legitimate election. Let the campaigning begin.