Voter participation in Haiti has been declining exponentially over the past few decades with the last presidential election only receiving at best estimates 23% of voters and at worst 17% of voters participating. So why has it been that polls that were once filled in the early years of this democracy have now gone barren? The answer could be in the past couple of decades where voters have gradually lost faith in their elected leaders.
Haiti made the transition to democracy in 1986 and has celebrated its 33 year anniversary this year. Yet, how did many Haitians celebrate this anniversary? Many protested in the streets causing damage to property, violence, and even leading to the death of a few protesters. These protesters took to the streets in all the major cities to express their frustrations with the rampant corruption by elected officials, lack of frequent and timely elections, and the weak state of their plummeting currency. Further, they are calling for the resignation of the current president Jovenel Moise. Before we continue though, it should be noted that Moise is not representative of the popular vote. This is because out of the roughly 20% of voters that showed up, he received roughly 600,000 votes which is roughly 10% of the registered voter population. So why is it that so many Haitians have lost confidence in their electoral process? To answer this, we should look at the concerns expressed by the people.
One of the main frustrations the Haitians have with their government is its leaders’ ties with the PetroCaribe oil alliance. The PetroCaribe oil alliance was created by Venezuela as a way for countries in the alliance to exchange petroleum among each other with preferential pricing and trade. Many Haitians are accusing Moise and other government leaders for misappropriating funds upwards of 1 Billion dollars to the alliance. Whereas these claims are currently being made, this is not the first incidence of claims of funds being misappropriated. This has led many citizens to lose faith in their elected leaders and cause unrest in parts of the country. But PetroCaribe is not the only complaint of the citizens in terms of the economy. Many Haitians are frustrated that in recent years their currency has been devaluing exponentially, the cost of living has been rising but the standard of living has not, and the strength of the currency against the US dollar has been growing weaker. It does not help that the government declared on February 9th of this year that Haiti is in a state of economic emergency. But the corruption prevalent in the government and the rapidly weakening economy are not the only reasons why voter participation has been decreasing at alarming rates over the years.
Many people point to the fact that a lack of Haitians confidence in their electoral system is half the problem. Another reason why Haitians are protesting in the streets and voter turnout is so low is because of the inability of citizens being able to exercise their right to vote. There are a few reasons for this disenfranchisement of a huge part of the population. One reason being the country still is recovering from Hurricane Matthew which destroyed 284 voting centers and washed out many roads. Further, the civil registry department of the government of Haiti has been increasingly inefficient and is actually aiding in the disenfranchisement of voters. Many of these voters are from the rural and poor communities who do not have access to voting centers or the necessary identification needed to vote at the polls. Hurricane Matthew led to many of the needed identification cards for voting to be lost or destroyed, and the civil registry is still trying to process/create new identification cards for people. But not only are the poor and/or rural populations being highly underrepresented, the amount of women in the government is also at a staggering low, and the disenfranchisement of women from the election process is also still a huge issue for this country.
One last reason why many Haitians have had frustrations with the government, especially in terms of the most recent presidential and parliamentary elections, is the lack of timely and scheduled elections. The most recent elections are a great example of this issue. The parliamentary elections held on August 9th of 2015 were rerun on October 25th of that year due to rampant voter intimidation, fraud, and violence which affected roughly 68% of voting centers. On the 25th of October that year, the first presidential election and second parliamentary election took place. But once again, the election was riddled with fraud, voter intimidation and violence, and a lack of confidence of citizens in the process. This suspended the run-off elections that were to take place on the 22 of January 2016, and led to the establishment of an interim government due to the citizens angers and outcries of corruption and fraud. Elections were once again stopped and rescheduled due to Hurricane Matthew which hit later that year, and the interim government scheduled elections for the 20th of November of that year. Finally, after roughly 15 months, Haitians got their election, even though a small percentage turned out, and a president and parliament were setup. But as shown in this post, it was not long before the citizens realized how undemocratic the system was and how corruption and fraud have been affecting their lives daily.
It is obvious that democracy has struggled to achieve its full potential for the state of Haiti. Since its birth in 1986, voter confidence and participation has been declining greatly. Further, it seems that the institutions one typically sees with a liberal democracy are still weak and prone to corruption and fraud. Not to mention the weakened state of the economy that has been gradually getting worse throughout the recent years. It leads one to speculate on what must be done to help this still weak democracy gain the confidence of its people, the strong institutions needed for governance, and the poor state of the economy. What does seem to be present though is that the citizens of Haiti still want democracy. They are rising up and protesting leaders and systems that have taken over their democracy and have riddled it with corruption, violence, and fraud. Yet, they are not calling for the dissolving of the democratic principles that were established in 1986. It seems that the Haitians have a long road ahead of them that they must endure to one day achieve and obtain the democracy they desire. One free of corruption, fraud, violence, and disenfranchisement of voters. If there is one thing we have observed about democracy is that it can be fragile and complicated in its early years and is prone to destruction early on. The fact that the democratic values and institutions are still supported in Haiti today should give us hope that they will one day achieve a strong, democratic government.
Photo by J. Augustini, Reuters
I thought your post was very interesting. Voter participation is one of the main reasons why many democratic countries are backsliding, and I thought your post had a clear main point as well as evidence to back up your theory. You included great hyperlinks as well to other stories, which were great to read for more background information on this subject. I did not know that Jovenel Moise was not representative of the popular vote, and I think this brings your point together nicely. Also, the fact that numerous voting centers were destroyed in the Hurricanes that struck Haiti over the years has made it much more difficult for voters to contribute to their democracy. I found a parallel between Haiti and the United States voting participation when you discuss Haiti’s most recent presidential and parliamentary elections being scheduled at inconvenient times. In the United States, voting is not as simple as it should be, which is why many people do not participate in popular elections. Polls typically have extremely long lines, and voting days are usually on the weekdays which makes it difficult for those who have jobs to have the time to vote. I found this argument surrounding Haiti’s voter turnout very interesting in your post. I agree with you when you mention that democracy has struggled to achieve its full potential in Haiti. I believe that to be a common thread for most democracies that are backsliding. I also agree with you when you mention that democracies are more prone to destruction early on. We have seen this in other countries. But I do believe that if Haitians continue to express their right to vote and fight for what they believe in, they will one day have a much stronger democracy.
It isn’t surprising that voter participation has declined in Haiti. Former president Martelly was able to rule by decree while he was in office because of parliamentary terms lapsed. Consequently, the Haitian government didn’t hold any elections for four years while he was president. Martelly appointed many local officials on his own and continued to delay the following presidential election. Moïse won the next presidential election but it was highly contested and resulted in massive protests. His company, Agritrans S.A, received money from Martelly’s government and thus aligned himself with the Haitian political elites. Haiti can’t escape elite alliances. Their democracy has faced constant foreign intervention and the failure of the traditional political institutions has divided and weakened what was left of their democracy.
It’s interesting to see democratic erosion happen in this way since, as you said, protests would suggest that Haitian citizens still hold democratic values, and those values are not reciprocated by the government. Elitism is also probably a contributing factor to the government’s lack of responsiveness to the issues of the population. In addition, as the Haitian population becomes more desperate to have their needs fulfilled, the appeal for populism grows. How much populism would Haitian citizens accept before it turns into an autocracy? Finally, what does Haiti have to do to move towards the stable democracy you assume citizens desire?
Low voter turnout would generally be seen as a lack of trust in the voting system, but in this case, 15 months of delays, voter fraud, intimidation, violence, and a physical inability to vote caused the low voter turnout. This would be different from the citizen’s declining trust in the system deterring voters from casting ballots. Looking at the percentage you gave of 10% of the entire population voting for Moïse, it could be assumed that several of those who voted for him are part of a Haitian elite who seek different outcomes than the average Haitian citizen. Some of those desired outcomes could have been related to the money involved with PetroCaribe, which has the potential to divide Haitian elites from average citizens. Whether or not this is true, the government was already in a position where they would be unable to represent the will of the people. Manipulating election result by preventing the majority of the population from participating is a major sign of democratic backsliding. An outstanding elite class and growing inequality can also polarize the population, making it harder for democracy to function. At this point, it would be rational to say that democracy and the citizens’ voice in Haitian politics is practically nonexistent.
The question of whether citizens would agree with the appeals of a populist leader has to be asked when looking at the future of Haitian democracy. High inequality and poverty in the nation could easily be used by a populist candidate to appeal emotionally to most Haitian citizens. But perhaps the popularity of a populist would be impeded by the population’s value in democracy or the failure of previous Haitian populist leaders like Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the 90s and early 2000s. The rise and fall of Arisitide’s populist rule is reported on by Howard French in 1990 for the New York Times and Carol Williams in 2003 for the Las Angeles Times. When looking at the current protests against the government, obviously, as you said, it shows discontent for the failed Haitian democracy, but assuming that citizens would want a flawless democracy would be wrong. Globally, people of lower social-economic standings and limited education will be more open to alternative forms of government. It would be irrational to view the Haitian population as an exception. Protests against the system might have economic motives rather than political ones. A populist argument for rapid economic gains for citizens may indeed be well accepted by those in critical financial conditions. I would still say that Haitian citizens would be wary of corrupt leaders and those with potentially authoritarian characteristics because of relatively recent leaders like Aristide and the dictator François Duvalier.
An argument could be made for the potential of a promissory coup in Haiti where a reformation to the system is promised but instead the country falls into an autocratic system. The argument has potential because a reform to the system is greatly needed and people would likely be open to a leader determined to ameliorate the political and economic system. I would also think that once signs of autocracy and corruption become apparent, the potential for protests and citizen’s backlash would also grow. Therefore, it would be difficult for populist or autocratic leaders to come to power, stay in power, or rule effectively in the coming years. That mostly leaves an unsteady path open towards democracy as the only option for the nation, or so I would think.
For Haiti to move towards a more functional democracy it needs harbor more attributes that promote democracy. According to Lipset, the creation of a middle class would improve the condition of Haiti’s democracy. A middle class would be able to make informed decisions in politics, stay rational, avoid extreme views, act as a sympathizer between the elite and lower classes, be harder to sympathize with tyranny, and be willing to compromise when necessary. Better education and an improving economy in Haiti would cultivate the middle class to grow and the path to a better democracy would be smoother. Dahl points out several key characteristics that are essential or helpful to democracy; of those, the control of the military by elected officials, an inseparable democratic culture, and a modern market economy would be the characteristics Haitian society should strive towards. Each of these would continue to make democracy more achievable, although it would still be difficult for these to develop because of their inconsistent historic presence.