In the wake of allegations surrounding multiple voting and poll worker malpractice following the October 25 election in Haiti, street protests have evolved into the instruments of choices for opposition and incumbent forces alike in pressing their political objectives. These protests have been peaceful, but many have been violent resulting in arson, property destruction, and some injuries. Road blockages and burning tires have also been protest tactics employed.
When asked why so many of these protests have turned violent, the response has been that violence is effective in achieving a political objective, where peaceful protests are not. Violence was seen to work in triggering the postponement of the January 24 second round presidential elections. However, Conseil Electoral Provisoire (CEP), the national election authority was beset by allegations on bribery and corruption. In the days proceeding January 24, through forced resignation on these allegations, the number of remaining members from the nine-member commission was five. Five members are not a sufficient quorum to certify an election. As a result, while the election could be conducted, it could not be certified by the governing commission. Nevertheless, the demonstrations were viewed by their organizers as the instruments which triggered the postponement, achieving one of their objectives.
The motives underpinning the demonstrations have grown more complex over time. At the outset, the October 25 post-election protests concerned a rejection by many losing candidates of the announced results with the belief that the outcomes were fraudulent. The demands included an array of remedial measures including the establishment of the Independent Commission Electoral Evaluation (ICEE), appointed by the president to investigate the claims of fraud. However, by the Commission’s own admission, there was insufficient time and resources to provide a “deep dive” examination of the allegations. Nevertheless, the Commission has put forward a set of recommendations which have been included for implementation in the February 7 political/interim government agreement. As the January 24 date approached, the motives expanded to include a postponement of the election and the dismissal of the CEP. Both of these objectives have been achieved as well.
With the signing of the February 7 agreement, Haiti enters a new political phase with the uncertainties which any such unchartered path would possess. The agreement mandates three investigations into the October 25 allegations. The first mandate is to implement the recommendations of the ICEE. The second is the establishment of a bicameral committee in parliament to investigate the allegations. And, the third investigation is to be conducted by the CEP as an internal evaluation.
While these three initiatives should provide that thorough examination of electoral procedures and administration, it also holds a number of risks. These risks include revealing too much “bad news” about elections and its subsequent impact on voter confidence and conflicting or contradictory reform initiatives. As a result, while these initiatives must operate independently, there should be some effort at harmonization and consensus on priorities and timelines.
For the moment, the political agreement and the Lent holidays have dampened the motives for further violent protests. During the interim period, perceptions surrounding the progress of electoral reform will remain central to the prevention or re-occurrence of electoral violence, in the form of street actions. However, elections conducted following reforms possess a special vulnerability for post-election violence. This vulnerability is a result of the public expectation that the reform will achieve some kind of improvement. If the perceptions emerged that these improvements have not been achieved, then public backlash over the efficacy and/or sincerity of the reforms can occur.
Jeff Fischer is the Senior Electoral Advisor for Creative Associates International. He has been the lead writer for two USAID-funded publications on best electoral practices in electoral security and electoral security frameworks.