I had heard that one of the thirty-something candidates for the presidency of Haiti is a woman, but I had yet to see her campaign posters. But last week her posters appeared all over the place and all at once. Her name is Judy C. Roy, and her slogan is pretty straightforward. “Vote fanm nan” means, “vote for the woman.” It says nothing about her professional experience or her opinions, but it does set her apart. All the other candidates are men.
The other slogan that has caught my attention during these last weeks belongs to Simeus Dumarsais. He’s a Haitian-born American billionaire, and banners proclaiming his candidacy read “Yon lòt chemen ak milyonè a.” That means, roughly, “A different path with the millionaire.” He has decided, in other words, to identify himself as both different and rich. Here’s the banner itself:
I have been careful to stay out of electoral politics in Haiti. It’s not that I see my work as apolitical or as neutral. I’m not sure that any public activity either can or should be neutral. And my activity is, perhaps, especially political: The only appropriate basis for public decision-making is dialogue, and building the skills and habits that make constructive dialogue possible is the central goal of my work. But it would be improper for me to enter into discussions in favor of any of the parties or candidates that are running for office. Foreigners, especially Americans, have wielded too much influence in Haiti for much too long. Not only that, I couldn’t contribute competently to such conversations even if I wanted to. I just don’t understand things well enough. I don’t know what Haiti needs from its government and I don’t know what the various candidates might be able to offer.
The preliminaries leading up to the election are fascinating, though. So I follow news when I can, and I listen to any conversations I come across.
Perhaps the most interesting story in this election thus far has centered on the candidacy of Dumarsais. He’s been in the States, making his fortune, for something like forty years. And he has American citizenship.
And that’s the curious point, because the Haitian constitution seems to proclaim rather clearly that anyone with dual citizenship is ineligible. And the provisional government and its electoral council proclaimed Dumarsais ineligible.
But that’s not the end of the story, because Dumarsais sued and the Haitian Supreme Court, for reasons I don’t understand, declared him eligible after all. The government responded by creating a special committee whose charge was to evaluate the citizenship of each of the candidates. The committee declared that Dumarsais and two other candidates are not Haitian citizens and, so, it invalidated their candidacies. The matter seemed decided and ballots were ordered printed.
But last week, the matter opened up again. The Supreme Court re-affirmed, still for reasons I don’t understand, that Dumarsais’ candidacy is valid. Surprisingly, the government fired the justices – actually announced their retirement. This although the Haitian constitution does not appear to give it the right to do so. Within days, the government arranged to swear new justices in, but the apparently-though-illegally fired justices and their supporters blockaded the ceremony. A few days after that, the government swore in its new judges, but installed them in offices in the Presidential Palace rather than in the White House.
It’s hard to guess where this all might lead, with a first round of voting scheduled for January 8th and ballots already printed. If someone had wanted to undermine the possible legitimacy of the election, then the manner in which Dumarsais’ candidacy has unfolded would have been a clever way to do it. If the Electoral Council is forced to include him, over their objections and over the apparent letter of the Constitution, then the election will most likely have to be delayed, again, because ballots will need to be reprinted. And we are already near two years of a provisional government whose constitutional mandate would have been to hold elections within three months. If he is excluded, it will be at the price of ignoring the Supreme Court.
Whether the coming election can be legitimate under any circumstances is a serious question. One possible candidate was blocked from participating by his arrest. The electoral council ruled him ineligible because he could not deliver his candidacy papers personally. At the time he was, and in fact still is, in jail. Not that he’s been charged with anything. His imprisonment could easily appear to be a strategy for excluding him from the ballot. And it might just be that.
Voter registration was problematic. Distribution of voting cards to those who did register continues to be difficult.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine what alternative there is to at least accepting whatever the election’s results might be. The frontrunner appears to be Rene Preval, the man who replaced Aristide in 1995 and was replaced by him five years after that. He has been strikingly quiet through the campaign thus far, bearing himself like a classic frontrunner. He recently said that he would not “engage anyone in polemics.” This seems only to promise that he won’t discuss any differences he might have with other candidates.
The current government has no mandate to continue governing, if it ever had any mandate to govern in the first place. It can’t reasonably continue. And replacing it by any means other than election would surely be less legitimate than even a poor election would be.
And plenty of Haitians are engaging themselves in the current electoral process, at least in the sense that they’re willingly talking about the different candidates, both in terms of their strengths and weaknesses as possible presidents and in terms of their respective chances of winning. One hears discussions everywhere: on the streets, in the busses and trucks that serve as public transportation, on front porches, in places of work, and elsewhere. This is true even though many of those who involve themselves in the conversations will say, at the same time, that they don’t really believe that there will be an election and that, if there is, the results don’t matter because the outside world will impose whatever governance on Haiti it desires. Former President Aristide was, after all, elected.
But there are, as I said, few alternatives to hoping that the election will go reasonably well and that its result will be accepted by most. At least there are none that I can see.