In July 2021 Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated. Prior to his death, there were various protests and riots calling for him to step down because of his corrupt regime and his refusal to step down. Moïse was elected in November 2016 and many citizens of Haiti believed his term should have ended in February 2021 seeing as it had been five years since his predecessor stepped down. Moïse argued that he had one more year in office because he did not physically take office until February 2017. Haiti’s Constitution starts a president’s term the moment they are elected, not when they physically take office. Moïse was adamant about holding on to power. NBC News reported that, at one point, he even threatened to amend the Constitution so that he could remain in power (Siemaszko 2021). According to Nancy Bermeo, if Moïse was successful in changing the Constitution, this would be considered executive aggrandizement. In contrast to coups, executive aggrandizement is a much slower form of democratic backsliding that does not include an executive replacement (Bermeo 2016). Executive aggrandizement occurs when elected executives gradually reduce the checks on their power by making institutional changes that are framed as a democratic mandate (Bermeo 2016). Moïse’s attempt at executive aggrandizement by threatening to change institutions such as the Constitution took a heavy toll on Haiti’s already unstable democracy but so did his assassination. Is not having an elected president worse than having one who does not want to relinquish their power?
Moïse’s assassination left the nation even more uncertain and fearful of what’s to come. Haitian citizens have always been fearful of international actors and their general involvement in Haiti as a whole. For example, there is a widespread belief that the United States has been silently interfering in Haiti’s elections and other politics for decades. This creates a gross mistrust of government and leadership within Haitian citizens. The mistrust of government, leadership, and overall democracy has led to protests and riots that continue to plague the streets of Haiti. In the 2021 Freedom House report, Haiti was rated as “partly free” with a score of 37/100. This score will most likely drop even more due to the persistent questions about the next political transition that does not seem to be coming any time soon.
Haiti is a semi-presidential democracy, meaning that there is an elected president who appoints a prime minister from a Parliament. Following Moïse’s assassination, the Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, stepped in and took office. To this day, he is still serving as Haiti’s President and Prime Minister. Aljazeera reports that opponents of Henry believe that he has overstayed his welcome and that his presidency is unconstitutional. Henry claims that he is only pushing off elections due to security concerns and he is devoted to bringing democracy back to Haiti. His presidency is supported by the United States and he stated that he is even willing to work with them to hand over Moïse’s Haitian American assassination suspects (Charles and Weaver 2022). This will lead to further mistrust from the Haitian people and consequently spark a cry for change. Many political opponents have risen against Henry, however, he refuses to acknowledge them even though he is stressing the importance of free and fair elections. This denial of the legitimacy of his political opponents is one key indicator of authoritarian behavior in Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018). Although this is a much smaller scale, if Henry lets the power get to his head then democracy in Haiti will continue to be in freefall.
Aljazeera reported that one of Henry’s opponents, Fritz Jean, believes that elections can not possibly take place any time soon due to the extreme amount of violence that the country is facing. Fear of low voter turnout is the main issue. If they hold elections at a time when citizens are scared to even go outside, the legitimacy of the elections will be questioned. In this case, postponing the elections could function to increase democracy in Haiti because it is ensuring that they are free and fair. The problem that then arises is the time frame in which elections can be reasonably held. Violence in the form of kidnappings, rape, and gang activity are not new to Haiti. Will there ever be a peaceful time to hold elections? Will Henry’s postponement of elections truly help democracy in Haiti or will he end up more corrupt than Moïse and possibly carry out a successful executive aggrandizement.
Democracy in Haiti is in freefall and it has been for a while. President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in 2021 may or may not have worsened this fall. What we are seeing now is an attempt to peacefully transfer power from the Prime Minister to a candidate that is freely and fairly elected by the Haitian people. If Henry follows through with his promise to hold credible elections and peacefully transfer his power, democracy in Haiti has a slight chance of returning to the nation.
Al Jazeera. “Haiti Faces More Instability as Moise’s Term Officially Ends.” Politics News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 7 Feb. 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/7/haiti-faces-more-instability-as-moise-term-officially-ends.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016, pp. 5–19, https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
Charles, Jacqueline, and Jay Weaver. “In Exclusive Interview, Haiti Prime Minister Says He’d Hand Assassination Suspects to U.S.” Miami Herald, 2022, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article258301873.html.
“Haiti: Freedom in the World 2021 Country Report.” 2021. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/country/haiti/freedom-world/2021#PR.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Penguin Books, 2019.
Siemaszko, Cory. 2021. “Haitian President Was Fighting to Stay in Power When He Was Assassinated.” NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/haitian-president-was-fighting-stay-power-when-he-was-assassinated-n1273291 (March 10, 2022).