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Haiti’s Rural Voters: Silent or Silenced?
by J.P. Shuster
Email: jpshuster (nospam) gmail.com
25 Apr 2006
An analysis of the comparitively low voter turn out between Haiti's presidential election and its legislative runoff as a result of missing civic education funds.
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On February 7, the people of Fond des Blancs, Haiti, a rural, mountainous commune in the country’s southern province, became the victims of an ill-conceived and poorly-executed electoral process that at no point during its two years of preparation had the capacity to document the voices of the commune’s population of largely illiterate peasants. After officials from the Commune Electoral Bureau (BEK) registered Fond des Blancs’ citizens to vote on five unannounced and isolated days behind all other communes in Haiti’s southern department, those who had managed to register walked varied distances of up to three miles to the small courthouse doubling as the voting office in Sainton at the commune’s center, stood in one of the four virtually-static lines surrounding the office, and entered to find that a technical glitch – a faulty final voting register printed hours before the voting center’s tardy opening – prevented more than half of them from exercising their democratic right to vote.
While local logistical problems made Haiti’s national democracy inaccessible to scores of frustrated voters, a highly-disputed, non-transparent vote counting process that nearly denied the locality’s most popular choice, former president, Rene Preval, a first-round victory in the capital further compounded the skepticism of free and fair elections in the commune of Fond des Blancs in the days leading up to the second vote. More specifically, the botched proceedings in the Sainton voting office challenged the fortunate fraction of Fond des Blancs’ voters who had managed to cast a ballot in the first round to maneuver the uncertain voting process a second time without any assurance that the same technical errors would not disenfranchise yet a larger portion Fond des Blancs’ legally registered voters in the legislative runoff.
The tumultuous wake of the first round vote continued to reverberate through post-election conversation.
“Some people stood in line until 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” explained Janine St. Rose, a local merchant, “and the office never let them vote.”
During this time, the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), mandated by the Interim Government of Haiti (IGH) to organize and carry out elections, scurried to correct the technical problems. CEP officials had begun scouting locations in Sainton to open a fifth voting station to receive more voters and made plans to deploy two extra election officers from the Commune Electoral Bureau (BEC). Most importantly, the election council guaranteed that all election materials, including the final voting register, would arrive forty-eight hours before the polls would open.
However, the CEP’s focus on quick fixes aimed at avoiding the repeat of logistical failures included no significant effort to boost the lack of infrastructure necessary to communicate with provincial communities like Fond des Blancs. Had it worked to redress this larger issue, the CEP could have explained their new measures to encourage doubtful voters to return to the polls.
At 8am on April 21 - a time that saw thick lines of voters converging on Sainton’s voting center ten weeks earlier – local election observers, CEP-trained officers, observing party representatives, and election security officers in matching blue shirts stood mingling with each other in front of the small courthouse’s four entrances and across the street in the warped-wooden doorway of the recently-added fifth voting office, waiting for voters to approach and put them briefly to work inside.
When asked why so many voters had chosen not to show, Samuel Jean-Louis, a university student home on vacation explained the Haitian electoral process as working “like a pyramid” and that “people do not feel they need to vote because they have already voted for the top.”
Fond des Blancs’ apparent satisfaction with having voted their country’s next president into office reveals a tragic shortsightedness regarding the working components of the Haitian state – one in which the progress of the chief executive at the top of that administrative pyramid rests entirely on an agreeable decentralization of legislative power and one that only a comprehensive civic education program aimed at sensitizing Haiti’s 3.5 million eligible voters on their civic duty could have put into perspective for them.
Rene Preval himself tried to explain to voters the critical importance of their participation in the days leading up to the legislative runoff warning, “Without support from parliament, there is not much a president can do.”
According to Fond des Blancs’ two election educators volunteering for the Commune Electoral Bureau (BEK), Yves Rene Guillaume and Johwonny Buissreth, all civic education in Fond des Blancs stopped when the CEP broke its six-moth contract with election educators in Fond des Blancs’ South-Aquin electoral district by withholding reimbursements to the election volunteers for their travel and education expenses in December of 2005 – two months before the election’s first round.
Although repeated first-round election postponements burdened the roughly $58,000,000 given to the CEP by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to “establish an adequate logistical framework required for elections in Haiti,” a missing amount of $200,000 in civic education-specific funds allotted to the CEP may have further contributed to its failure to pay volunteers like Mr. Guillaume and Mr. Buissreth to deliver critical election information to each of Fond des Blancs’ eligible voters.
The UNDP also gave the CEP $3.7 million for a media campaign that may have reached the minority of residents with a satellite television connection but never made it to Radyo Revelasyon, a local Catholic radio station with the only clear frequency in the commune.
Both Mr. Guillaume and Mr. Buissreth claimed that they continued their civic education duties in Sainton, but said they did not have the funds to travel to the surrounding zones or to pay for airtime on Radyo Revelasyon after December of 2005.
Despite a call by senior political party representatives in the weeks preceding the April 21 vote for an emergency sensitization program, an insolvent CEP could not pay the Commune Electoral Bureau (BEK), which had originally trained educators like Mr. Guillaume and Mr. Buissreth and provided them with election materials in September of 2005, to hold another seminar to address the problems incurred during the first round or begin the process of explaining the new measures it would take for the second round.
As a consequence, the common peasant in Fond des Blancs received little civic education before the February 7 vote and then none after it specific to the legislative elections.
Thus the largest population of voters in Fond des Blancs would never learn the importance of their participation in the second round of voting or the particulars of the system into which they were to elect their officials; for example, that the party holding the majority of seats in parliament chooses the prime minister who then fills a cabinet with his own appointments to the sixteen ministries of state. The CEP also failed to explain to the large number of eligible voters that were content with Rene Preval’s victory that his “Espwa” party did not have enough candidates running in the April 21 election to win a majority in Parliament with its combined 47 candidates running for senate and deputy seats.
More complicated political speculations about Preval’s need to form a coalition with another large party like RDNP, Union, or Lavalas to avoid an opposition movement in parliament that could stifle his executive authority and, ultimately, Haiti’s development, for example, remained a conversation for Haiti’s wealthier educated classes.
Perhaps the only organization with the capacity to inform those who had voted in favor of Preval’s progressive politics but without the knowledge of how to cast a consistent vote in the legislative runoff would have been former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party with its two decades of grassroots experience in election politicking. But a well-known systematic campaign of suppression by the Interim Government of Haiti (IGH), which included the illegal imprisonment of an estimated 700 to 1,000 political prisoners, “many of whose sole crime was being identified as being a Lavalas party activist or member of the former Aristide government,” according to an April 1 Council on Hemispheric Affairs report, forced the political party to operate for the past two years during election preparation without much of its leadership, including former prime minister, Yvon Neptune and a once-potential presidential candidate, Catholic Priest, Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste. Without a single Espwa candidate running in the South-Aquin district, the former information infrastructure created by Lavalas’ past voting drives may have markedly changed the education, and consequently, the voter turnout in Fond des Blancs and in its neighboring communes.
Electoral Commissioner, Patrick Féquiére, was one of the few to publicly voice his concern for the state’s failure to sensitize its voters, saying the level of civic education just before the legislative runoff left him “disappointed.”
“I wanted more people to know that a good deputy could help us open another national school,” expressed Mr. Buissreth, referring to the single state secondary school for Fond des Blanc’s population of 45,000 as he observed the trickle of voters briefly entering the voting offices.
In all, a meager fifty-six out of Sainton’s four hundred registered voters participated in electing the South-Aquin district’s three senators and ten deputies into Haiti’s next parliament. An estimate of 15% of eligible voters casting a ballot nationally reveals a certain fatigue from the tumultuous path toward first-round voting that only a comprehensive civic education program could have addressed before the second round. Although the second round of voting could have stirred the rural locality into voicing support for the senate and deputy candidates most likely to compliment the president they had elected just two months earlier, the silence of those responsible for informing Fond des Blancs’ eligible voters about the particulars of the legislative runoff wholly contributed to the quietness of the day’s unfolding.
J.P. Shuster lives and works in Fond des Blancs, Haiti as a volunteer for the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, based in Randolph, MA.
This work is in the public domain