Haitiís Stealth Elections: Whatís At Stake?
December 2, 2006
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Haitiís Stealth Elections: Whatís At Stake?

by Brian Concannon Jr.

Tomorrow Haitians will vote in historic elections that are as ignored as they are important. Although they are receiving little attention in the foreign, and even Haitian press, the elections will establish, for the first time in nineteen years, the radically democratic and decentralized foundation of Haiti's 1987 Constitution.

The International attention available for elections in poor countries is focused on Venezuela's Presidential race the same day. Haiti's President, René Préval, is in Havana today, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Even the members of the Haitianpolitics listserve have other things on their mind: today's postings include analyses of politics in Venezuela, Cuba, Lebanon and France, but no mention of tomorrow's voting in Haiti.

Haiti's elections are for municipal and local posts, which attract less attention in any country. They are also a year late- they were originally scheduled for November 2005 by the dictatorial Interim Government of Haiti (IGH), but postponed several times, even as Haiti elected a President and Parliament last spring.

More important, many popular candidates are not running. Although the IGH is gone- Prime Minister Gérard Latortue fled to the U.S. to avoid prosecution for fraud and murder- the Provisional Electoral Council it appointed is still running the voting. The Council declined to re-open candidate registration, which excluded candidates who feared to register under the IGH, but were willing to participate under the democratic Préval government. The exclusion particularly impacted Haiti's largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, which boycotted the 2005 registration because the IGH was routinely arresting and/or killing its leaders and grassroots activists. Although some local candidates registered under the party's banner anyway, they did so in less than half the races, and those candidates were not vetted or approved by the national organization.

On the ground in Haiti, people do care about the elections, because they know what is at stake. Over 29,000 candidates are running for 1,420 positions. Grassroots activists are organizing an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign, spreading the word through informal networks and progressive radio stations. They are predicting a decent turnout, albeit below the levels seen for Presidential elections.

THE CONSTITUTION'S SOUL

What is at stake Sunday is the "soul" of Haiti's government established by the 1987 Constitution: a pyramid structure based on 4-6 person local assemblies, called "ASECS" (Assemblés des Sections Communales). The ASEC system is designed to radically decentralize political power and ensure grassroots participation at the highest levels of government. It is so radical that the powers-that-be, including a broad spectrum of Haitian governments and members of the International Community- the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the United States, all of which have played an active role in the details of Haiti's elections- have ignored this foundation of Haiti's constitutional system for nineteen years. Haiti has had seven election cycles since 1987, electing five Presidents and several legislatures. ASECS have been on the ballot less than half the time, and the system has not been fully implemented once.

ASEC candidates run as a slate (from a political party or group of independents) and are chosen by voters in each communal section. Haiti is divided into ten Departments, each Department is divided into municipalities, or communes, and each municipality is split into communal sections. A dense urban communal section could have more than 100,000 voters, a remote rural section as few as a few hundred. ASEC members wield little direct power themselves, but they are the soul of the constitutional system because they oversee and advise other government officials, from local administrators to the National Palace, and play a key role in selecting judges and electoral council members.

Within the communal section, the ASECs advise and supervise the local Sectional Council, which administers the section. Each ASEC sends one representative to the Municipal Assembly, which plays a similar watchdog/advisor role at the municipal level. The mayor is supposed to report to it on the use of municipal resources, and cannot sell state lands without the Assembly's approval. The Municipal Assembly also makes the initial list from which local justices of the peace are chosen.

Each Municipal Assembly sends a representative to the Departmental Assembly, where the power starts to accumulate. The Departmental Assembly chooses the members of the Departmental Council, which administers the Department. The Departmental Assembly plays a similar watchdog/advisor role at the Departmental level, and the Departmental Council reports to it. The Departmental Assembly also draws up a list of nominees for trial and appellate judgeships in the Department. Each Departmental Assembly nominates three people to serve on the national Permanent Electoral Council (CEP), ceating a list of 30 nominees. The Supreme Court, the executive and the legislature each pick three names from that list for the CEP.

Each Departmental Assembly sends a representative to the Interdepartmental Assembly. The Interdepartmental Assembly helps the executive branch, and is involved in policy planning. The Interdepartmental Assembly is entitled to attend and vote at Ministerial Council meetings that deal with issues within its domain.

This system ensures that non-professional politicians, elected by their neighbors, have a say at every level of Haitian government. The system is insulated from centralized money and other forces because it is impossible to predict which ASEC candidates are likely to make it to the Departmental Assemblies, where power starts to accumulate.

For example, in the 3rd Section of Croix-des-Bouquets, outside Haiti's capitol, there are seven ASEC slates of six candidates each. If a candidate's slate prevails, he has a one-in-six chance of being chosen for the Croix-des-Bouquets Municipal Assembly. That Assembly has ten members, one of which is chosen for the Departmental Assembly for the West Department. So any one ASEC candidate has a 1-in-420 chance of reaching the Departmental Assembly, and a 1-in-4,200 chance of reaching the Interdepartmental Assembly.

A HISTORIC STEP FORWARD

Implementing the ASEC system will bring some much-needed stability to future elections, by establishing a Permanent Electoral Council. The 1987 Constitution created a formula for choosing a Provisional Council that would run a single election that would set the ASEC system in motion to choose a Permanent Council. Because the ASEC system was never implemented, every one of Haiti's elections over the last nineteen years has been run by a Provisional Council. All but the first of those Councils was chosen through a formula not recognized by the Constitution. And all but the first of the elections they ran was contested by the losing parties, who challenged (with good reason) the Provisional Council's legitimacy.

Nineteen years is a long time to lay the Constitution's foundation stone, but it is better late than never. Sunday's voting is a strong first step, but it must be followed up with diligent implementation of the entire ASEC system. By doing so, President Préval could help end the incessant series of electoral crises in Haiti, which keep spiraling into political instability and twice have led to the overthrow of the Constitutional government. In the long run, Sunday's ignored elections could be the most important accomplishment of President Préval's administration.

Brian Concannon Jr. directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.HaitiJustice.org

image from photo by Wadner Pierre

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